Could it be the reports passed to him by his Cadi, the mayor and chief justice of the city? There was indeed something in them that disturbed him deeply. For twenty years Cordova had been vexed by one foolish young man, or young woman, after another from the Christian minority. They thrust themselves forward. They abused the Prophet in the marketplace, they came to the Cadi and declared that they had been followers of the Prophet and had now turned to the true God, they tried every trick they could to earn death beneath the executioner’s sword. Then their friends revered them as saints and sold their bones—if the Cadi did not order and supervise total cremation—as holy relics. The Caliph had read the holy books of the Christians and was well aware of the parallel with their account of the death of the prophet Yeshua: how the Rumi Pilate had done his best not to condemn the man before him, but in the end had been provoked into ordering his death. A sorrow for the world that he had not been firmer. And they were at it again, so the Cadi reported, stirring up their Moslem fellow-citizens to fury and creating riots in the city.
Yet even that was not the heart of the matter, the Caliph thought. His predecessor had seen the cure for that problem. The Christians were quick enough to embrace death for the glory of martyrdom. They were slower to endure public humiliation. The way to deal with them was what Pilate himself had suggested: strip them and flog them in public, using the bastinado. Then send them contemptuously home. It appeased the Moslem mob, it created neither relics nor martyrs. Some took their beatings well, some badly. Few returned for more. The key was not to react to the provocation. A real believer in Islam who became a Christian: such a one must die. Those who merely declared their conversion to gain death, they should be ignored.
But there was the heart of the matter, the Caliph realized. He shifted uncomfortably on his carpet, and the tinkling of the zither instantly ceased. He settled back again and, very tentatively, the music began once more.
The core of Islam was the shahada, the profession of faith. He or she who once made it before witnesses was then for ever and irrevocably a Moslem. All that was necessary was to say the words: I testify, that there is no God but God, and Muhammad is the Prophet of God. La illaha il Allah, Muhammad rasul Allah, muttered the Caliph to himself for perhaps the hundred thousandth time. That witness was ordained by the Prophet himself. It could not be taken back.
Yet the Prophet, praised be his name, thought the Caliph to himself, had never had to deal with Christians hurling themselves to martyrdom! If he had, maybe he would have made the witness harder! The Caliph caught himself. There indeed was the heart of his trouble. He was on the point of criticizing the Prophet, of accepting change in Islam. He was becoming an unbeliever in his heart.
He raised a finger, made the gesture of one who unwinds a scroll. Bare minutes later the keeper of his library, the katib Ishaq, stood silently in front of him. The Caliph nodded to a cushion, to indicate that the katib should sit down, crooked a finger for sherbet and dates to be brought.
“Tell me,” he said after a pause, “tell me of the Mu’tazilites.”
Ishaq glanced at his master and employer warily, a chill at his heart. What suspicion prompted this question? How much did the Caliph want information, how much did he want reassurance? Information, he guessed. But unwise to neglect the appropriate disclaimers.
“The Mu’tazilites,” he began, “were fostered by the unworthy followers of Abdullah, enemies of your house. Even in Baghdad, though, seat of the impure ones, they have now fallen into disgrace and been scattered.”
A slight narrowing of the eyes told Ishaq to proceed more quickly to the information. “The seat of their belief,” he went on, “was that faith should be subordinate, as the Greeks would have it, to reason. And the reason for their disgrace was that they argued that the teachings of the Koran were not eternal, but might be subject to change. Only Allah is eternal, they declared. Therefore the Koran is not.”