The Palace of Wonders

A Borgesian fable about the Caliph and the Koran.
2011-05-232019-02-24 finished certainty: fiction importance: 0

Like , “The Palace of Won­ders” is both a short story and part of a larger sto­ry, Cloud Nine. “Acre” was based on a vi­sual dream loosely in­spired by a LeGuin sto­ry, but “Won­ders” in­stead stemmed from a mis­re­mem­ber­ing of lines in sto­ry, .

In the year 454 after the He­gira of the Prophet Muham­mad (peace be upon him), the Blessed Calif Rashid-ad-D­in, Lion of the Faith­ful, Com­man­der of the Guardians of the Flock, Pro­tec­tor of the Down­trod­den, Ex­peller of Djinns, Ex­pos­i­tor of the Dhar­ma, Vicar of God and hum­ble ser­vant of Al­lah, whose glory he re­flects like the Moon the Sun in the sky above:

Com­mis­sioned the schol­ars of renown, the sages of wis­dom, the fakirs of faith, the ulama of rec­ti­tude, to:

Cat­a­logue all the forms of the Cre­at­ed.

This en­deav­our was sug­gested to his Awe­some­ness by his Ex­alted Wor­thi­ness the Vizier. This Vizier whis­pered in the ear of the Caliph, whis­pered that Alla in the full­ness of time had writ­ten two books:

“The first Book was the Mother of the Lu­mi­nous Ko­ran, which re­sides in Heaven and glimpses of which were vouch­safed to the Prophet when he was com­manded by the An­gel Gabriel ‘Re­cite!’”

“The sec­ond Book was the Book which lays un­folded all about; it was the Book of Cre­ation. Just as Omar gained im­mor­tal­ity and the eter­nal praise of the Faith­ful by col­lect­ing and bind­ing the palm leaves of the one Book of the Holy In­errant Quran, how much more so could a too mor­tal Kalif sim­i­larly gain merit by com­pil­ing all the Earth? A blessed mis­sion—Was it not writ­ten ‘Surely We re­vealed the Re­minder and We will most surely be its guardian.’”

And it was done thus, and thus­ly:

En­tre­pid schol­ars were despatched to the Four Cor­ners, traders re­ceived rich re­wards and were bribed with bulging bags of bahts to pro­cure and bring forth cu­riosi­ties, and ex­trav­a­gant mer­cies, im­mu­ni­ties & re­wards tempted those with unique ar­ti­facts and an­i­mals to ex­hibit them to the scribes and so the ten thou­sand un­der the heav­ens were all gath­ered in the House of Wis­dom.

But one il­l-s­tarred day a trav­eler ap­proached out of the moun­tains to the East and sought ad­mis­sion to the pres­ence of the Emir and his scribes. Brought be­fore them and ab­jured to dis­play his pos­ses­sion, he bowed deeply and saith: “I have heard it said that you seek to en­cap­su­late all which Al­lāh hath made. This shows many things; per­haps it will show you the er­ror of your ways.”

Bow­ing his shaved head, he placed a large & per­fectly round clear glass down onto the mar­ble and left, the scribes in con­ster­na­tion. Look how it shifts, faster even than a man’s heart or quick­sil­ver! said one. Now it shows the ceil­ing, now the throne, now me! Spoke an­oth­er. What shall it be listed as? It is a Khal­if, a No­ble, a rose, a za­hir. Their lead­er, a snowy-haired man ap­proached the Throne.

“It is clear to me that this abom­i­na­tion must be de­stroyed, that it vi­o­lates not only the Qur’an (did not Al-ʾilāh say ‘Thou shalt not make graven im­ages’? And is it not writ­ten that He shall judge the ar­ti­fi­cers, com­mand­ing them to give life to their mock­eries of the liv­ing, and fail­ing, they shall abide with the flame?) but also all san­i­ty, for some­thing which will be any­thing must per­force be­come every­thing, and how could we ex­ist apart from what is every­thing? It must be de­stroyed!”

And so it was done.

The coda to this is not known, for it was in those days that the Turks (or the Hsni­ung-nu, as the Chi­nese knew them), un­der the cap­taincy of the dire Tam­bur the Lame fell upon the world of light and Faith, in a holo­caust never to be equaled un­til al-Lāh him­self should stretch forth His arm on Judg­ment Day.

But there are texts, pos­si­bly apoc­ryphal. The first end­ing holds that the monk ac­tu­ally left two mir­rors. The Caliphe idly op­posed them and was dri­ven mad by his brief glimpse into the mind of the Most Mer­ci­ful. And in the oth­er, per­haps as recorded by the Soofees, he re­al­izes the fu­til­ity of his reign and his project and his books, and as the hoof beats echo in the dis­tance, de­spair­ingly cries:

“Words! The Word of God!”