A slave boy of Byzantine origin, who had grown up to become a scientific scion of Archimedes in the annals of world intellectual history, was offered a hefty sum of 1,000 dinars as a gift from his royal Seljuq patron Sultan Sanjar ibn Malikshāh in Khurāsān (r. 1097–1157). This gift was sent in celebration of the young scientist’s completion of the tedious astronomical tables that he had painstakingly composed in crowded pages for the grand patron. Owned by the treasurer of the court, this humble client of Sultan Sanjar – Abu’l Fath al-Khāzinī, whose Kitāb Mīzān al-Hikma (Book of the Balance of Wisdom) is both a theoretical and practical breakthrough in the science of hydrostatics, possessed the courage, confidence, and, above all, the grit to refuse this generous reward! ‘I have ten dinars already,’ he is reported by the twelfth century polymath Zahīr al-Dīn Bayhaqī to have said, ‘and I live on three a year. Besides, in my household there is nobody except one cat’.
When we reconstruct in our historical consciousness the grandeur and the worldly might of the Seljuqs, this ‘audacity’ of a slave-servant (khādim) appears to be quite remarkable, manifesting the stature scholars enjoyed while in the service of a patron or patrons in royal courts. Note here that the generic appellation ‘scholars’ in this exposé denotes not only scientists but also philosophers, writers, historians, poets, artists, artisans – that is, all those preoccupied with matters relating to human thought and imagination, with historical enquiries, or with the creative arts. The boundaries between many of these disciplines being invisibly blurred anyway in the earlier periods of our human history.
But back to Khāzinī. Demonstrating the simplicity of his lifestyle despite royal patronage and high-level connections, he could turn down a massive material gesture from the powerful Sanjar – and get away with it, facing no ensuing adverse consequences. One also remembers that he had expressed such impudence twice: once before he had turned back the same financial reward of 1,000 dinars sent to him by the wife of a Seljuq emir. But then, neither the Sultan nor the majestic lady felt slighted by what seems to be an abrupt refusal on the part of a ‘lowly’ slave in their service. Khāzinī seems to have been valued as a favourite of the court whose idiosyncrasies were to be admitted.