Mahmud of Ghazni (966 -1030 AD) was a zealous Muslim sultan from the city of Ghazni in Afghanistan. In 1001 AD he led the first of his seventeen raids upon India, first plundering the sacred Hindu cities of Mathura and Vrindavan, then moving southwards into Gujerat to destroy the famous Shaivite shrine of Somanath. The doors of the Somanath temple were made of solid gold and studded with precious stones, and these doors Mahmud ordered to be carried away to adorn the Ka'ba in Mecca. On each of his raids Mahmud destroyed every Hindu and Buddhist temple or monastery that he encountered.

The Prophet Mohammed died in 632 AD and within eighty years of his death the country of Sindh (Baluchistan and Southern Pakistan), had been conquered by Muslim Arabs. For the next five centuries the Turkic Arabs ravaged India, and succeeded in wiping out Buddhism from the land of its origin and desecrating countless Hindu shrines and temples. In 1206 AD the first Sultan of Delhi, Kutb'ud'din, destroyed nearly a thousand temples in the ancient Hindu city of Benaras alone.

The Idol of Somanath

The Muslim ruler, Mahmud of Ghazni, was campaigning with his army through western India, seeking to either convert the Hindus to Islam or to put them to the sword. At the city of Somanath Pattan in Gujerat they came upon the shrine of Somanath - the 'Lord of the Moon' - one of the twelve great jyoti-lingas or sacred sites of the great god, Shiva. Upon witnessing the veneration that this symbolic image of Shiva received Mahmud decided to destroy it immediately. In order to save their sacred lingam the Hindus offered to give Mahmud ten times the weight of the stone image in gold if he would spare it, but Mahmud refused and demanded that the stone lingam be destroyed by fire. Ayaz, the servant and spiritual companion of Mahmud, petitioned the sultan to take the gold instead of burning the idol.

"This I cannot do." Replied Mahmud: "Because on the day of judgement Allah would declare what you and I had done. You, Ayaz, would be called a defender of idols, and I would be called a seller of them"

It is said that when the flames from the fire caused the stone lingam to crack, a hundred measures of precious stones fell out. These Mahmud kept as a treasure, declaring: "Shiva received what he deserved, and Allah has rewarded me with what I deserve."

Mahmud and Sheikh Abu Hasan

Because of a service rendered by Ayaz, his servant, Mahmud promised that he would honour Ayaz as a sultan one day. So he dressed Ayaz in his own robes and seated him upon his own throne. Then, with Ayaz dressed as the sultan and Mahmud dressed as a courtier, he decided that he would play a trick on the Sufi Sheikh, Abu Hasan.

Mahmud had previously sent a messenger to Abu Hasan asking the great sheikh to come and visit him, with a note that read: "According to the Qur'an you must obey the commands of the Lord, the Prophet, and the King."

But Abu Hasan refused to come and visit Mahmud, and instead sent a reply stating: "Tell Mahmud that I am so absorbed in contemplation of the Lord that I am unable even to direct my attention to His Prophet, let alone a king."

So Mahmud and Ayaz instead travelled to the humble cell of Abu Hasan, where they saluted him. But although Abu Hasan responded to their salutations, he did not stand up. And the sheikh immediately entered into conversation solely with Mahmud, ignoring Ayaz who was dressed as the sultan. Mahmud interceded, saying: "Great sheikh, why do you address me and not the sultan?" To which the sheikh replied, "Why are you trying to fool me with this switching of identities?"

Abu Hasan took Mahmud aside so that he could speak to him alone. Mahmud then asked, "Tell me something of the Sufi saint Bayazid. Who was greater, the Prophet Mohammed or Bayazid?"

"Whoever saw Bayazid shall undoubtedly escape doom on the Day of Judgement," began the sheikh: "But be carefully of the questions that you ask, and treat this subject with respect. Only a very few of the Prophet's companions were able to recognise his spiritual status during his own lifetime. It is written in the Qur'an that Mohammed saw those who turned towards him: but that they, although seeing him, failed to recognise him."

Mahmud then offered some gold coins to Abu Hasan, and in return the sheikh offered the sultan a piece of dry bread. Mahmud tried in vain to chew the bread, but was unable to swallow it. Then Abu Hasan said, "Just as you are unable to swallow my bread, so am I unable to swallow your golden coins." So he returned the coins to Mahmud. The sultan then asked for a piece of the sheikh's cloth as a blessing, and this he was given.

As they prepared to leave Abu Hasan's cell, the sultan remarked: "This is a beautiful place that you have here." Hasan replied, "The Lord has conferred a whole kingdom on you, and yet you are so avaricious as to desire this humble dwelling!"

The sheikh then stood up to bid the sultan farewell. Mahmud was surprised by this, and said, "When I arrived here you did not stand up to honour me. Why do you now do so when I am leaving?" Abu Hasan replied, "When you entered my cell you were clothed in the regal pride of a king. Now you are leaving here as a humble dervish. I can see the light of humility upon your face. This is why I honour your departure."

Mahmud kept the piece of cloth that Abu Hasan had given him as a sacred treasure. Many years later when he was besieging the shrine of Somanath he feared that he might lose the coming battle, so he prayed before this cloth, saying, "Lord, grant me victory in token of this great saint. If I win the battle I shall distribute all the spoils among the dervishes." His prayer was granted. A dissension arose within the Hindu army and Mahmud defeated them.

On the night following the battle Mahmud dreamed of Abu Hasan, who said to him, "Mahmud, you made a mistake in exchanging the blessings of my cloth so cheaply. For had you but prayed that all the people in the world would convert to Islam, it would have come to pass."

Mahmud and the one-legged chicken

Mahmud asked his chef to cook him a chicken one day. When the meal was served Mahmud found that although the breast and wings were intact, the chicken only had one leg. He called his cook and pointed out this abnormality to him.

"I'm sorry your majesty," said the cook: "But unfortunately it's the way things are now, nearly all chickens seem to have only one leg these days!"

A few days later Mahmud was out walking with his cook when they came upon a rooster standing at rest upon one leg. "Look," said the cook: "There's another of those one-legged chickens I was telling you about."

Mahmud clapped his hands and the rooster ran away on two legs. "You're wrong," said Mahmud: "Look, this chicken has two legs."

"Well the other chicken would probably have had two legs also if you had been there to clap your hands!" replied the cook.

Mahmud and the pearl

One day Mahmud took a large pearl from his own treasury with the object of testing the discriminative powers of his courtiers. He first handed the pearl to his chief minister saying, "Tell me how much you think this pearl is worth."

The chief minister gazed in wonder at this large pearl and replied, "Your majesty, this pearl is of enormous value. It is worth more gold than a hundred donkeys can carry."

"Very good," said Mahmud: "Now break this pearl. Crush it into pieces!"

"This I cannot do," replied the minister: "I hold the welfare of your treasury in my keeping. I cannot allow such a precious pearl as this to go to waste."

"Well said," exclaimed Mahmud, who having taken the pearl back then presented his chief minister with a robe of honour. For a while Mahmud engaged his assembled courtiers in conversation about current events, then he handed the pearl to his chamberlain and asked him to determine its value.

"Your majesty, this pearl must be worth more than half a kingdom. I pray that God will preserve it from destruction."

"Break it!" said Mahmud, "Crush this pearl into pieces."

"It would be a great pity to break this pearl," replied the chamberlain: "Look at its splendour and brilliance. Even the daylight pales in its glow. How could I allow my hands to break it? How can I be a destroyer of my Lord's treasury?"

"Well said," answered Mahmud, who then presented a robe of honour to his chamberlain and passed the pearl to his minister of justice for his assessment. After having received a similar answer, Mahmud then passed the pearl on to around fifty of his assembled courtiers, asking each one of them to first estimate the value of the pearl and then to destroy it. From each he received the same kind of answer. They all imitated the response of the chief minister, and none had the courage to actually destroy the pearl. To all of these courtiers Mahmud presented a robe of honour.

Finally Mahmud called for his servant Ayaz and said: "Ayaz, every one of my ministers has examined this pearl and estimated its value. Will you now say how much you think a pearl of this splendour and excellence is worth?"

"It is worth more than I am able to say," replied Ayaz.

"Now break it," said Mahmud: "Crush it into small pieces."

Ayaz took two flat pebbles from the base of the ornamental fountain in the courtyard and immediately crushed the pearl into small fragments. The courtiers were shocked at Ayaz's audacity and began to complain: "What recklessness is this? This man is an infidel. He has shown no regard for the priceless value of the sultan's pearl."

Ayaz turned towards the hostile courtiers and said: "O noble lords, is the king's command more precious or the pearl? In your eyes is the command of the sultan or this costly pearl superior? Your gaze is fixed upon the pearl, not the sultan. I will never avert my eyes from my lord. I will not turn my face towards a stone, like a worshipper of idols. Devoid of faith is the soul that prefers a coloured stone to the commands of my king."

The whole assembly of ministers bowed their heads in shame upon hearing Ayaz's words.

Mahmud and the caravan

One day a group of thirty ministers approached Mahmud with a petition. They were all envious of the favouritism that their sultan bestowed upon his faithful servant Ayaz, and sought to discredit him, saying: "Your majesty, Ayaz now receives as much salary from you as all of us put together. Why should this be so? It isn't fair, for although he is intelligent he doesn't possess the intelligence of all of us put together." Mahmud did not respond to their taunt. Instead he changed the subject and invited these thirty ministers to accompany him on a hunting expedition.

Thus it was that a few days later Mahmud and these ministers went hunting for game in the hills that bordered the desert. In the distance Mahmud saw a large caravan of traders travelling towards the west, and said to one of his ministers: "I am curious to know where that caravan started from. Ride over and find out."

The minister rode off and soon returned, saying, "They started from Kashgar, your majesty."

"And where are they bound for?" asked Mahmud.

"I didn't ask," replied the minister.

Mahmud then sent another of his ministers to find out the destination of the caravan. The minister rode off and returned, saying: "They are bound for Yemen, your majesty."

"From Kashgar to Yemen is a long journey," said Mahmud. "What merchandise are they carrying?"

"I didn't ask," replied the minister.

Mahmud then sent another minister to enquire of their cargo. The minister rode off and returned, saying: "They are carrying a large assortment of merchandise, your majesty. But mostly their cargo consists of silks and metal-ware that have been made in Kashgar."

"And when did they leave Kashgar?" asked Mahmud.

"I didn't ask," replied the minister.

In this manner Mahmud sent each of the thirty ministers to the caravan with a different question, and although each of them returned with the correct answer, none of them had taken the initiative to anticipate the further enquiries of their sultan.

Mahmud then called his ministers close and said: "Once I went out hunting with Ayaz alone. In a similar place to this I saw a large caravan in the distance and decided to put Ayaz to a test. I told him to ride over to the caravan and ask from where it had set off from. When he returned I asked him each of the questions that I have asked you. But, unlike you, Ayaz had already taken the initiative to ask these questions himself of the caravan leaders, and when he returned he answered each of my questions without the slightest doubt or hesitation. It has taken you thirty trips back and fore to the caravan, but Ayaz needed only one trip. Yours was a time consuming journey of thirty stages, but Ayaz needed only one journey and one stage. I applied the same test to you as I did to Ayaz. You failed, but he passed. Perhaps this goes some way to answering the question about your wages that you asked a few days ago."