The Trickery of al-Fadl ibn Musa


Vizier Ibn al-Furāt was imprisoned by the Abbasid caliph Muqtadir in 918, on charges of corruption. While the vizier was in jail, his estate—a place called Arthakhushmithān—was placed in the care of a certain Fadl ibn Mūsā al-Nasrānī, a devoted agent of the imprisoned official. Among the assets that Fadl ibn Mūsā was guarding for his jailed employer was a treasury of 4,000 dīnārs. Several years later, he would be ordered by the Abbasid caliph to hand over the money, but Fadl ibn Mūsā would fight back with a series of clever tricks in an effort to keep control of the dīnārs.

On June 21, 921, a party of diplomats set out from Baghdad on a mission from the caliph Muqtadir to the newly converted khan of the Volga Bulgars, Almish ibn Shilkī Yiltawār. Among the diplomats was Ahmad ibn Fadlān, whose job in the embassy was to read the caliph’s letters and to distribute gifts, and once they reached the Volga, to also supervise the region’s teachers and jurists. Thankfully, Ibn Fadlān wrote a text called the Risala, in which he described the progress of the diplomatic mission, as well as the diverse people and landscapes that he came across on his journey.

In his book, Ibn Fadlān wrote that the diplomatic mission was dispatched because Khan Almish of the Volga Bulgars “asked for someone who could instruct him in the Faith, teach him the laws of Islam, build him a mosque and erect a minbar so that he could have the prayers said in his name…and also requesting that a fortress be built, for the defence against the kings who were his adversaries” (Ibn Fadlan, Risala, Penguin ed. Pg. 3). As the Abbasids were planning to do some major construction projects in Volga Bulgar land, the caliph Muqtadir scoured the map for sources of revenue that could be diverted to the mission. Unfortunately for the aforementioned disgraced vizier, Ibn al-Furāt, his town of Arthakhushmithān, with its treasury of 4,000 dīnārs, lay right on the route of the diplomats. Therefore, when the diplomats set out from Baghdad, they had in their possession a letter from the caliph, which commanded that the 4,000 dīnārs be handed over to the embassy for use in the domain of the Volga Bulgars.

When the diplomats reached the city of Bukhārā, Ibn Fadlān read out the letter about the money to Nasr ibn Ahmad (r. 914-943), the young ruler of the Sāmānid Emirate. The emir agreed to comply with the order and the message was passed to Fadl ibn Mūsā, who still managed the finances of Arthakhushmithān. The command, however, was not received well by the agent. As mentioned earlier, he was prepared to go great lengths in order to keep the city’s 4,000 dīnārs.

Fadl ibn Mūsā quickly discovered a loophole in the letter brought by Ibn Fadlān and the diplomats. Apparently, the specific official who was supposed to personally receive the 4,000 dīnār payment was a man named Ahmad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārazmī. He, however, for whatever reason, happened to have set out from Baghdad a full five days later than the rest of the diplomats. Therefore, although the embassy was requesting the money, the person who was authorized in the letter to receive the payment was not yet in Bukhārā. Seizing upon this flaw, the crafty Fadl ibn Mūsā sent a convincing letter to the head of security who was in charge of the road that Ahmad ibn Mūsā would be traveling upon. According to Ibn Fadlān, the letter resembled this: “Keep your eyes peeled for Ahmad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārazmī in the caravanserais and customs’ posts. He is a man of such and such description. If you run across him, lock him up until you receive our letter about the matter” (Ibn Fadlan, Risala, Penguin edpg. 6). The security officials, not questioning the tip, kept a close watch on the traffic of the road. They found poor Ahmad ibn Mūsā at a place called Merv—which was about 150 miles from Bukhārā—and they threw him in a jail until further notice.

Although the target was imprisoned, Fadl ibn Mūsā’s plan was only half-way complete; he needed to get the diplomats to continue on their journey before anyone started looking for, or asking questions about, the missing member of their party. In order to get the diplomats to leave, Fadl ibn Mūsā and his comrades began stoking the fear of officials about the oncoming winter. Ibn Fadlān and the others in the diplomatic mission managed to wait in Bukhārā for twenty-eight days before their fear of winter finally forced them on their way. Although they were heading to the Volga Bulgars without the promised finances, they thought that surely Ahmad ibn Mūsā would catch up with them later. Little did they know that he was detained in jail.

Ibn Fadlan and the diplomats unfortunately arrived at the court of Khan Almish ibn Shilkī Yiltawār still without the 4,000 dīnārs around May, 922. Awkwardly, the letters of the caliph that Ibn Fadlan personally read to the khan specifically mentioned that the embassy would have money for construction projects in the Volga region. When Almish discovered that the money was missing, he became convinced that Ibn Fadlān had stolen it for personal use. Unfortunately for Ibn Fadlān, Almish embarked on a relentless campaign of political gamesmanship and bullying, in hopes of making the diplomat relinquish the absent money. The khan first tried blunt, angry demands and then employed pointed religious disobedience to show his annoyance over the missing funds. Almish also had a translator eerily say that, in the khan’s former pagan days, cunning and intelligent people (like Ibn Fadlān) had been sacrificed to the sky-god, Tengri. On a more jovial note, the khan sarcastically gave Ibn Fadlān the epithet of “the Truthful.”

Ibn Fadlan’s account did not include the return-trip, so we unfortunately do not know if Almish ever received the elusive 4,000 dīnārs, and the fate of Fadl ibn Mūsā is also vague, although his employer was executed in 924. Whatever the case, the relationship between Baghdad and the Volga Bulgars apparently remained warm during the reign of the caliph Muqtadir. One of Almish’s sons was known to have gone on a pilgrimage to Mecca, and he was bestowed with gifts and money as he passed through Baghdad.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Caravan painted by Alberto Pasini  (1826–1899), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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