Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 August 2016
وحُكي أنّ سُفْيان لَمّا أمَر بتقطيع ابن المقفَّع وطرحه في التنُّور قال له والله إنّك لتقتُلني فتقتل بقتلي ألف. نفس ولو قُتل مئة مِثْلك ما وفَوا بواحد
(It was reported that when Sufyān ordered Ibn al-Muqaffac be dismembered and thrown into the oven, the latter said to him: ‘By God, you kill me and by killing me you kill a thousand souls, but had a hundred like you been killed, they would not be worth one.’)
These words appear in ‘The book of the viziers and secretaries’ by al-Ğahšiyārī (d. 942/331), an official living at a time when the sun was setting on the splendour of the cAbbāsid empire. He colourfully depicted the glorious or disastrous stratagems of famous and infamous bureaucrats and lords. Sufyān was a member of the Arab aristocracy and governor of Basra. Yet he is mostly remembered as the murderer of Ibn al-Muqaffac, a secretary whose father, a Persian nobleman, worked as a tax officer for the Arab governor of Iraq until he was accused of official corruption, possibly after the fall of the governor who hired him. He was tortured and his hand remained shrivelled (muqaffac), giving rise to the name by which his son was known – Ibn al-Muqaffac (‘the son of the shrivelled’). Ibn al-Muqaffac's father took care of his son's education so that he learnt Arabic to perfection and fused that with a profound knowledge of Persian administrative skills, courtly culture and literary traditions. Although he worked for different governors of the Umayyads, he survived their fall in 750/132 to become an advisor/administrator to a branch of the cAbbāsid family, uncles of the first caliph of the dynasty. Unfortunately for him, his patrons became rivals of the second caliph of the dynasty, al-Manṣūr, and Ibn al-Muqaffac was killed (by 758/140 at the latest) with the consent of the caliph by an old enemy who – according to one version of the story – chopped off his members one by one and put them in an oven while he was still alive and watching them burning. Ibn al-Muqaffac's precipitous career and horrendous death offer a striking example of the extent to which the Arab conquerors depended on the expertise of the administrators of the vanquished empires, but it also illustrates the risks inherent in rising to the higher levels of administrative service.