The tale that follows is a bit too complex to function as a simple parable, as one is not quite sure what the moral of the story is—”God’s omnipotence bests worldly power,” or “philosophical speculation is dangerous to the state” could both be put forward as plausible interpretations—and its very circularity calls into question whether the author even intended a moral at all. The fact that Al-Hizaga himself was banished by the reigning Mamluk sultan on pain of death may have embittered him towards authority figures.
A sultan was arguing with a caliph over who was strongest.
“I am supreme ruler of the kingdom,” said the sultan. “I have an army.”
“I am successor to the prophet,” said the caliph. “My authority is both religious and political. I control not only arms, but hearts. My power is thus twice that of yours.”
“You only think that because your power falls into two categories,” said the sultan. “But it doesn’t matter. My army is bigger than yours. So if you are more powerful than me, it must be due to the precedence your religious authority takes over my superior military strength. Personally I think that without arms, no hearts would flock to you.”
“I can pronounce a fatwa ordering your death,” said the caliph.
“I can sack your city and put your head on display,” said the sultan.
At this moment the royal librarian interceded. “I have many scrolls,” he said. “Without my information your armies would not know what strategies to take in military affairs, and you would be without access to scriptural interpretations. Knowledge is the best form of power, since that is what makes martial strength effective and prophecy accurate.”
The caliph gave orders to have the librarian executed, and the sultan ordered his library to be burned. Afterwards they congratulated themselves.
“Knowledge is not as powerful as power,” they agreed.
Then they resumed arguing. That night, the sultan sent an assassin to kill the caliph. This unholy crime did not escape Allah, and as punishment He sent a plague upon the sultan’s people. Catching the plague himself, the sultan was carried to his bed.
“I’m still the most powerful! I outlasted the caliph,” The sultan gasped to his son in-between coughs, unwilling to relinquish his pride even in his final moments.
The son nodded in sympathy. Then he smothered his father with a pillow, not content to wait for the plague to finish its work. The next day as the new sultan, he appointed his younger brother as the new caliph, with whom he had always gotten along. It was not long before the brothers became engaged in dispassionate philosophical speculation.
“Ah, older brother, my dear wise sultan! I was thinking about it this morning, and was wondering—just out of curiosity, of course…who do you think is stronger: a sultan, or a caliph?”
The sultan paused, pretending to ponder the question for a moment as he scratched his chin. “The strongest? Well, my pious brother, that should be obvious…”