Under the year 652 /1254, several medieval Arabic chronicles mention the death of a certain Kamal al-Din Ibn Talha, the former khatib (chief mosque preacher) of Damascus, who is uniformly described as virtuous, learned and ascetic. Ibn Talha's claim to fame was that he was appointed vizier by the Ayyubid ruler al-Nasir Yusuf in 648/1250, but resigned the post after two days, instead embracing a life of asceticism; according to some accounts, even rejecting the position after the document of appointment had been formally drawn up. We are given, then, an idealised picture of an ‘alim, who if briefly tempted by the vanities of this world soon rejected them. This picture is, however, undermined by references elsewhere in the chronicles to Ibn Talha's earlier involvement in Ayyubid politics, serving as an emissary in the 636/1238 peace negotiations between the Ayyubid princes al-Jawad and al-Salih. Moreover, the notices in al-Safadi and al-Dhahabi conclude with an intriguing and critical comment: ‘He entered into perdition and error and made a circle of letters, claiming he could interpret knowledge of the unknown and of the final hour.’ This alludes to the ‘science of letters’ (‘ilm al-huruf ), the proponents of which believed that the letters of the Arabic script and the Qur’an encoded occult knowledge in their numerical values.
The most detailed account of Ibn Talha's career comes in Ibn ‘Imad's Shadharat al-dhahab, and refers to the same allegations, which, however, Ibn ‘Imad seeks to defuse. He calls Ibn Talha ‘one of the great preeminent men and leaders’ (ahad al-sudur wa’l-ru’asa’ al-mu‘azzamin), and reports that he was born in 582/1186, and studied hadith in Nishapur with the famous transmitters al-Mu’ayyad and Zaynab al-Sha‘riyya. He became a faqih, ‘and excelled at jurisprudence, usul and disputation’. Ibn Talha, he says, also wrote diplomatic correspondence for kings (tarassala ‘an al-muluk), and served as qadi in Nusaybin, his home town, before becoming khatib of Damascus. Ibn ‘Imad mentions Ibn Talha's famous two-day vizierate, and also reports that ‘he is attributed with a preoccupation with the science of letters (‘ilm al-huruf ) and [future] times, and predicting things from the unknown (al-mughibat). But it is said that he repented.’