Murder in Baghdad

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Murder in Baghdad

by Salah Abd al-Sabur


A verse play set tn Baghdad in the early 900s, during the decline of the Abbasid dynasty; first performed in 1965; published in Arabic (as Ma’sat al-Hallaj) in 1964, In English in 1972.


A tragedy in two acts, the play chronicles the arrest, trial, and execution of Mansur al-Hallaj—a real-life mystic, poet, populist preacher, and probable political agitator of the medieval Arab world.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

The Play in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

For More Information

Salah Abd al-Sabur (1931–81), who dominated the Egyptian poetic scene from the end of World War II to his death, established himself as the foremost Egyptian representative of Arabic literary modernism of his era. His poetry was known for its simple, straightforward language and its concern with Egyptian village life, including the anecdotes, folktales, and epic stories that circulated among the common people. This early interest in promoting the language and point of view of ordinary people did not stop Abd al-Sabur from becoming a consummate administrator and government functionary in the latter half of his life. He held high government posts in cultural affairs and served as editor for a number of influential literary publications. Until his death in 1981, Abd al-Sabur also served as the managing director of the General Egyptian Book Organization (GEBO), the official government publishing house. He thus had a significant impact on Egyptian cultural policy during the final years of the presidency of Gamal Abd al-Nasser and the beginning of Anwar Sadat’s term in office. His influence diminished, however, in the late 1970s. An ardent Arab nationalist and supporter of Nasser’s political and social reforms, Abd al-Sabur disapproved of Sadat’s increasingly repressive treatment of Egyptian intellectuals and refused to support Egypt’s separate peace treaty with Israel in 1977. The writer’s misgivings were confirmed when, in the wake of the treaty, other Arab nations broke ties with Egypt, the most populous Arab country, and it suddenly became a pariah, culturally and commercially isolated from its neighbors. Abd al-Sabur spent the final years of his life out of favor with political power, focusing much of his attention on two journals he had helped found and still oversaw as chairman of the Board of the Directors of GEBO, which underwrote them financially. The first of these, Fusul, a journal of theoretical literary criticism, gave vent to his lifelong interest in making Egyptians more aware of the best and most innovative of Western writing about literature. The second journal, al-Masrah (The Theater), was devoted to the stage, both Egyptian and international, a personal interest of Abd al-Sabur. He showed an enduring fascination with drama during his life, composing five verse plays over his career. The first of these, Ma’sat al-Hallaj (literally “The Tragedy of al-Hallaj,” translated as Murder in Baghdad) has had a lasting impact on modem Arabic drama, though somewhat limited audience appeal, largely because it attempts to take post-World War II innovations in Arabic poetry and transfer them to a dramatic framework. Its theme, the difficult choices intellectuals confront when they engage in political struggles, was timely when written and continues to resonate today in a world where those who choose the path of activism face harassment and even punishment, imprisonment, and death.

Events in History at the Time the Play Takes Place

The decline of the Abbasid caliphate

By the time Mansur al-Hallaj, the main character in Murder in Baghdad, was born (in 857 c.e.), the Abbasid dynasty had begun a long, slow decline that would culminate in a mass execution of its last pitiful representatives on the banks of the Tigris River outside Baghdad at the hands of the invading Mongols in 1250 c.e. Even before al-Hallaj’s birth, there was debilitating conflict in the Arab/Muslim Empire. The sons (Amin and Ma’mun) of the Abbasid’s most powerful caliph, Harun al-Rashid, had fought a long and bitter civil war over who was to succeed their father as ruler, a war that devastated the empire for over 20 years (809–833 c.e.). Eventually Ma’mun won, but so seriously did the war weaken the empire’s infrastructure that he was never able to fully consolidate his power base. This set the stage for a slow disintegration of centralized rule that affected subsequent reigns, as strong provincial governors redirected their tax revenues to local purposes, refusing to send them to Baghdad. Though they paid formal allegiance to the reigning Abbasid dynasty, they were in practice independent rulers, with their own troops and cadres of administrators, loyal only to them. Such breakaway rulers were often described as “sultans,” an Arabic term that means “the one who wields power,” regardless of the legitimacy of his claim for exercising that power. There was trouble too in the territories under their immediate control, where the weakness of the later Abbasids was exacerbated by dissident religio-political movements and by rebellions instigated by oppressed subjects. Given this state of affairs, the caliphs in “power” at the time were sometimes termed by those they ruled as mere “sultans.”

Due to the slow pace of conversion, it was only in the 800s, some 200 years after Islam first appeared, that most of the caliph’s subjects could be characterized as Muslim, rather than the adherents of other religions. Ironically this greater religious unity gave rise to disharmony—the caliph’s subjects made more demands on him for fair treatment and showed rising dissatisfaction with the ways the state sought to impose a consensus version of Islam on them. Competing interpretations of the religion flourished and sometimes clashed. There was a concomitant waning of central authority.

This decline in central authority did not necessarily signify the weakness of the Muslim commonwealth. “As they became converted, people in the various provinces demanded to be admitted to the political process as full members of the Muslim community …. They were good Muslims, but their loyalty to a caliph and centralized Muslim government, hundreds, even thousands of miles away in a land they had never seen, was naturally limited” (Kennedy, pp. 202–03). A product of these contentious times, al-Hallaj became caught up in the ensuing tensions between local and central control.

A self-made man

The son of a poor wool-carder (which is the meaning of his name), Mansur al-Hallaj was a self-made man whose own success shows how the Muslim polity was expanding to include a much greater spread of social, economic, and geographical backgrounds at the time. Al-Hallaj was born in the province of Fars and spent his earliest years in the city of Tustar, on the eastern side of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is today Iran. According to the most reliable sources, his father was employed in the cloth-weaving industry there, so his family was part of the working lower class (Massignon, p. 21). Still, al-Hallaj could pursue his education to an advanced level since medieval Islamic society offered opportunities to ambitious youth.

At the time Tustar was a heavily Arabized city, home to detachments of Arabic-speaking Abbasid troops. Al-Hallaj actually traced his lineage to Persian roots, and his grandfather was a Zoroastrian. However, al-Hallaj received his education in the Iraqi cities of Basra and Wasit, wrote most of his extant works in Arabic, and probably by adulthood seldom used his Persian in formal contexts. He completed his education at age 16, then returned briefly to Tustar and affiliated himself with a Sunni mystic leader in the city. He went back to Basra soon after, continuing the studies in mysticism that would become his life’s vocation. During this period, al-Hallaj made long trips to the Islamic holy city of Mecca on the Arabian peninsula and, even more ambitiously, turned eastward at least twice for extensive journeys through cities of the Iranian plateau and as far as western India.

Upon his return, he settled in Baghdad, the imperial capital of the Abbasids. Becoming an intimate of great figures at the Abbasid court, acting as their spiritual guide and mentor, he grew deeply involved in—and ultimately fell victim to—the various attempts to strengthen the caliphal hold on power. His visibility and forthrightness in expressing his opinions about religious and social reform made him a tempting target. He often went about the streets of Baghdad publicly preaching his ideas wherever he could gather a crowd. Thus, the enemies of his supporters could more easily attack him than his more circumspect and well-guarded patrons. Eventually he was accused of religious blasphemy and political agitation and, despite the efforts of his supporters to save him, was executed in 922 c.e.

During the Abbasid decline, periods of relative prosperity alternated with threatening times of disruption and uncertainty. Al-Hallaj experienced both types of times. During his youth, the caliph al-Mu‘ tamid (r. 870–92), in partnership with his brother al-Muwaffaq, maintained order and rebuilt the financial and territorial underpinnings of the state after a nine-year period of anarchy. For much of al-Mu’tamid’s reign, al-Hallaj lived in Basra, where order was harder to maintain, however. Rebellion was rife there. Basra was the center of the most protracted revolt against the government, one with an element of “class struggle” to it and racial overtones as well. This was the revolt of the Zanj, the black slaves from sub-Saharan Africa, over labor and living conditions. The term Zanj (derived perhaps from the name of the island Zanzibar) was used at the time for the East African slaves whom the Arabs had imported over the preceding two centuries so they could reclaim the marshlands of southern Iraq for agricultural purposes. The Zanj suffered horrendous living conditions and a correspondingly high mortality rate, which was uncharacteristic of slavery in the Islamic world. “This seems to have been the only area in the Islamic world where this sort of large-scale agricultural slavery was practised, elsewhere farming was conducted by free peasants while slaves were used for domestic, administrative or military purposes” (Kennedy, p. 179). In their rebellion against these conditions, the Zanj employed terror tactics. Al-Hallaj, living in Basra and 15 years old at the time, would have witnessed one such tactic when the rebels sent the heads of hundreds of massacred victims floating downstream past the city in an attempt to break its resistance to their siege. The enmity between the supporters of the caliph and the slaveowners, on the one hand, and the Zanj and their allies in Basra, on the other, was expressed in religious terms, as a breach between the two subdivisions of Islam, the Shf ite and the Sunni. The entrenched powers identified with the Sunnism of the caliph and his court, the rebels with the Shi‘ites. Whatever his reaction to the floating heads, al-Hallaj allied himself in marriage to a family that supported the same Shf ite sect as the Zanj leaders. So he probably viewed the revolt with some sympathy, though there is no other direct evidence of this.

Suppression of the Zanj revolt, along with other, largely class-based insurrections, became a major concern for Caliph al-Mu‘tamid and his brother al-Muwaffaq, and for the latter’s son, al-Mu‘tadid, when he succeeded his uncle in 892 c.e., and for al-Mu‘tadid’s eldest son al-Muktafi, who died in 908 c.e. But the essential soundness of their rule, and health of the caliphate at that time can be seen in the fact that at the death of al-Muktafi “the treasury was full and the caliph left 15 million dinars” to his heirs (Kennedy, p. 187).

With the reign of al-Muktafi’s younger brother, all of this changed. Al-Muqtadir was only 13 when he became caliph and, though he reigned for 25 years, during most of that time he was essentially a puppet, guided first by his mother, the Byzantine concubine Shaghab, and manipulated later by representatives of two competing factions of government ministers. The first faction was led by the family known as the Banu al-Furat, the second by the Banu al-Jarrah.

The Banu al-Furat (led by AH ibn al-Furat, who would connive at al-Hallaj’s trial to ensure his execution) were Shi‘ites of Baghdad. This Shf ite affiliation may have been significant in that the Shi‘ites would not have felt the strongest loyalty to the Sunni Abbasid caliph, but even more importantly, Ali ibn al-Furat was a consummate opportunist. He would enrich himself and his clan in the short term, often at the expense of what would have been sound fiscal policy in the long term. The other faction, the Banu al-Jarrah, were staunch Sunni Muslims like the caliph. At the head of this clique was Ali ibn Isa, who was completely unlike his rival. Abrasive and impatient, Ali ibn Isa lacked the finesse and sophistication of the urbane Ali ibn al-Furat, yet “at the time of each of his [four] departures from office, Ibn Isa left a restored budget, with reserves left aside, whereas at the time of his three falls from power, … Ibn al-Furat left an unbalanced budget and no reserves” (Massignon, p. 413). Ibn Isa’s faction, the Banu al-Jarrah, had as their allies the Madhara’iyun family, who boasted extensive contacts in Syria and Egypt. It was this alliance of the Banu al-Jarrah and the Madhara’iyun family, along with the caliph Muqtadir’s mother and her chamberlain, Nasr al-Qushuri, who were admirers of al-Hallaj and protected him at the time of his initial arrest in 912 c.e. As Act One, Scene Two of Murder in Baghdad suggests, al-Hallaj may have been involved in treasonable correspondence with the branch of the Madhara’iyun in Egypt and their protege, the able and famous breakaway governor of Egypt, Ibn Tulun, who established an independent dynasty there (Massignon, pp. 414-15).

Upon his initial arrest, al-Hallaj was sentenced to a mild punishment, three days public exposure while bearing a placard labeling him a political agitator. After that, he lived in the royal palace, under house arrest and, at the intercession


One of the earliest accounts of af-Hallaj’s death refers to his being “crucified” (maslub) (Massignon, p. 16). In the medieval Islamic world, the term refers to a live prisoner’s being hung from a gibbet, or t-shaped crossbar, also often used as a gallows for hanging, and exhibited to the surrounding crowd for public humiliation (Massignon, pp. 452–53).

of Nasr al-Qushuri, was even given his own private quarters there. Sometime during this period al-Hallaj wrote works on the political theory and duties of a vizier, the caliph’s chief deputy, which he dedicated to Ali ibn Isa, among others (Massignon, p. 29).

In 919 a fiscal crisis weakened the position of Ali ibn Isa, and he came into conflict with another minister, Hamid (who had ties to the Banu al-Furat). The inquiry into al-Hallaj’s activities was reopened at this time, probably to undermine the caliph’s confidence in Ali ibn Isa and his ally, the chamberlain Nasr al-Qushuri. Although it may have been no more than a pretext, al-Hallaj was indicted and brought to trial for heresy, specifically for claiming to perform miracles, for asserting that divinity can be embodied in human form, and for denying “divine unity,” the most basic Islamic doctrine that there is only one God (Massignon, p. 291). In 922 he was condemned and executed on a related charge, “of daring to alter the legal rituals” by arguing that it was possible to carry out the obligation of performing the pilgrimage at home, without actually traveling to the holy city of Mecca (Massignon, p. 545). He was subjected to an extremely cruel form of execution. After being subjected to a thousand lashes, his hands and feet were cut off, he was strung up and exhibited on a gibbet, then cut down and decapitated the next morning. Once dead, his body was burned and the ashes scattered into the Tigris River from the top of the highest minaret in Baghdad.

The development of Sufism

More than just a political activist or a religious preacher, al-Hallaj was a mystic, or sufi. Sufi is the term for those Muslims who, in the historical development of Islam, exhibited a particular interest in cultivating a close spiritual relationship to God.

Most religions in some measure seek to incorporate a reciprocal balance between encouraging in their followers an individual awareness of the sacred, and the impetus to build a godly community with fellow believers. In Islam, which early in its history developed a very strong focus on the community, the more individualized spiritual orientation, known as Sufism, emerged slowly. But it grew quickly in sophistication and depth. By al-Hallaj’s time, Sufism had penetrated all social levels and occupied an important niche in the fabric of all Muslim groups, whether Sunni or Shi’i.

Not until a century later, however, would Sufism develop a systematic doctrine and history. Only in the later 900s, after al-Hallaj’s death, did Sufism become institutionalized. Before that, its practice was extremely variable. The lives of its founders, who served as models for those seeking a deeper understanding of Sufism, were very much the stuff of legend. It was later, in retrospect, that Sufis discerned in the founders recognizably consistent positions on various questions important to the discipline. The later Sufis delineated these positions in three important manuals of conduct—the Kitab al-luma fi al-tasawwuf (The Book of Illuminations Concerning Sufism) by Abu Nasr al-Sarraj, al-Ta‘arruj li-madhhab ahl al-tasawwuf (The Doctrine of the Sufis) by Abu Bakr Muhammad al-Kalabadhi, and Qut al-qulub (The Food of Hearts) by Muhammad ibn Ali al-Makki, all probably composed after 950 c.e. All three included an account of Sufism that traced it back to the devotional practices of the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate successors.

There followed a set of early mystics who cultivated, say the accounts, a sense of awe, wonder, and even fear at the terrible might and majesty of God. Hasan al-Basri (d. 728), a noted leader of this group, expressed its basically ascetic and gloomy outlook in the utterance, “O son of Adam, you will die alone and enter the tomb alone and be resurrected alone, and it is with you alone that the reckoning will be made” (al-Basri in Schimmel, p. 30). “Known as ’those who constantly weep,’” the group lamented “the miserable state of the world,” and “the meditation on their own shortcomings made them cry in hope of divine help and forgiveness” (Schimmel, p. 31).

But even as these attitudes of revulsion at worldly concerns and active withdrawal from life took hold, a counter-current began to emerge that emphasized the cultivation of the mystic’s longing for union with God, a longing that found its closest analogue in the love of an enraptured lover for his (or her) beloved. The most striking early representative of this trend in Sufism was Rabfah (d. 801 c.e.), a poor freedwoman of Basra. Annemarie Schimmel’s description of her captures the essence of her character, as portrayed by later Sufis, in a few well-chosen sentences: Her “love of God was absolute …. The world meant nothing to her. She would shut the windows in spring without looking at the flowers and become lost in the contemplation of Him who created flowers and springtime” (Schimmel, p. 39). The trend focused on perfecting one’s love for God, as Rabfah did, on the one hand, and on affirming this world (or at least not showing hostility to this life) rather than denying it a place of import, on the other hand. It was this last form of piety that al-Hallaj would adopt over a century later.

When this variety of teaching is pursued to its highest degree, the human lover’s identity becomes submerged in that of the Divine Beloved, and he or she experiences a radically disorienting sense of unity with God. Later on, Sufi teachers would call this experience fana, Arabic for “annihilation.” By this, they meant a person’s awareness of self, of his or her egotistical desires and pride, would be destroyed, and the person would attain a rush of spiritual intuition permeated by a sense of God’s presence everywhere. In the opinion of many, the closest analogue was the emotional surge one felt upon getting drunk, a comparison made all the more poignant by the fact that, although drinking intoxicating beverages was normally forbidden to Muslims, a “spiritual drunkenness” of this sort was perfectly legitimate. Sufis would stay up for long hours, meditating on God until hunger and sleep deprivation heightened and distorted their senses; they would engage in group chanting and dancing that carried them beyond the ordinary limits of human consciousness.

Not all Muslims understood or welcomed such behaviors; in fact, to behave in these ways was to invite disapproval and even punishment. It was in such a spiritually intoxicated state that al-Hallaj uttered the famous phrase, “I am the Truth” (ana al-haqq). “Al-Haqq” (the Truth) was one of the honorific titles of God in Islamic liturgy, so, to contemporary observers, the statement was blasphemous. It was as if al-Hallaj had said, “I am God.” The incident was later used in evidence at the trial where he was condemned, lending support to the charges of heresy laid against him.

The three Sufi manuals, when they appeared shortly thereafter, were careful to criticize al-Hallaj for such utterances, and to call attention to his rashness in expressing his feelings and intuitions so publicly, in front of ordinary people, illequipped to interpret them properly. In the opinion of these manuals, al-Hallaj had failed to marry the sense of fana, or annihilation, to baqa. Literally this last term means “persistence” or “maintenance,” but they were using it to denote the state of consciousness that a mystic experiences as he or she emerges from spiritual “intoxication.” In this emergent state, one experienced a sense of returning sobriety or equilibrium, imbued with a new, transcendent awareness of divine immanence, one that kept bathing the believer in a kind of holy light.

From the tenth century on, Sufism underwent a period of systematization. The systematizers tried to contain the experiences of the early mystics by formulating a disciplined framework of education and training, most often compared to a path down which the initiate would be guided by a “master” or teacher. Eventually these educational practices, and the religious devotional exercises surrounding them, became even more institutionalized through the formation of organized Sufi groups, known in Western sources as “brotherhoods” or “fraternities,” or even, misleadingly, as “orders” (from Christian monasti-cism, which has little relevance to Islamic practice). The groups owned meeting places where like-minded Sufis would gather to learn or to practice rites and rituals that enabled them to perfect their spiritual discipline. Not suprisingly, these fraternities sometimes became centers for protest against what their members perceived as unjust political or social practices. This was particularly true of the poor and downtrodden, who often balked when the Islamic ideals of egalitarianism and justice were subverted in larger society and found in the Sufi group the only effective avenue for making their protests heard. Over time, this seemingly paradoxical aspect of Sufism—not as withdrawal but as a potential source of organized opposition to an unjust ruler—would become well established in the Islamic world.


The play’s Shibli is based on a real life mystic of the same name. The real Abu Bakr Shibli (861–946 c.e.) was born to a family of Turkish court officials. He received substantial land grants, which he forfeited on becoming a Sufi. Though a follower of al-Hallaj and his closest friend, Shibli became famous for betraying him in his hour of need. Mystical tradition has it that when al-Hallaj was led to his execution, Shibli followed at a distance. At the gibbet people began throwing stones at ai-Hallaj. He reacted not at all, but when Shibli threw a rose that struck him al-Hallaj screamed in pain. Why, he was asked, did you react to the rose and not the stones? “They do not know what they do,” he answered, “but he should have known it” (al-Hallaj in Schimmel, p. 68). Shibli was summoned to testify at al-Haflafs trial (Massignon, p. 529), When presented with evidence that al-Hallaj claimed to have become united with God, Shibfi reportedly advised the court that “if someone speaks in this way, he must be forbidden to do so” (Massignon, p. 529). The reply, though it stops short of calling for his execution, was nevertheless used by the court to support its verdict.

The Play in Focus

Plot summary—Act 1

A play in two acts, the beginning unfolds much like a detective mystery. A dead body (soon to be revealed as that of al-Hallaj) hangs in Baghdad’s main public square. The body is discovered by a group of passing strangers, after which, in flashback style, the act lays the groundwork for al-Hallaj’s apprehension and arrest.

The first three characters encountered in Murder in Baghdad are the three passers-by who discover al-Hallaj’s body: a merchant, a peasant, and a preacher from the local mosque. Rather than being well-rounded individuals, they represent the three major social classes in the medieval Islamic world. Seeking to discover the identity of the dead man, the three approach a nearby crowd. Members of the crowd openly contend it was they who killed the old man and, moreover, they did it with words. From their statements it becomes clear that they were bribed by the caliph’s agents to shout at al-Hallaj’s trial that he was a heretic.

As the crowd wanders offstage, a group of Sufis approach. The original three passers-by, not truly understanding why the authorities would want to spend so much time and gold insuring the death of one apparently harmless old man, resolve to ask the Sufis for more information. But the Sufis are even less forthcoming than the crowd. They say only that the old man sought death and they obliged:

Preacher: Were you frightened when the poor people shouted?
And did you then forsake him?
Is this your guilt?
Sufis: Frightened? No. No.
Only the dead fear death
We fulfilled his wish!

(Abd al-Sabur, Murder in Baghdad, p. 6)

“Only the dead fear death,” say the Sufis, referring to ordinary people who do not use their consciousness to be aware of God’s presence everywhere. A true Sufi is fortified by the thought of God’s nearness after death and so does not fear it. Al-Hallaj wanted to die so he could “return to heaven” and be close to God, whom he loved as a beloved (Murder in Baghdad, p. 7). So theirs is just the guilt of omission. They failed to acknowledge that they shared his beliefs when the mob called for his execution as a heretic.

After the Sufis leave, an old man with a single flower steps out from behind a tree. The man is Shibli, leader of the mystics and a close friend of al-Hallaj. Shibli blames himself for his friend’s death, because he failed to publicly defend the accused and risk becoming a martyr at his side. After Shibli’s confession, the three passers-by depart, troubled that there seem to be too many candidates for the role of murderer in the death of al-Hallaj.

The second scene reverts to the recent past. Shibli and al-Hallaj are seated, discussing Shibli’s argument that it is better to withdraw from the world and from contact with people in order to come closer to God. Al-Hallaj objects to this view; it abdicates their responsibility as good Muslims and good Sufis to oppose evil in this world and save their fellow humans from injustice. To this, Shibli replies:

Evil is old in the world
Evil is meant for those who are in this world
So that the Lord can know
who shall be saved and who shall perish.
Each man must find the road to his own salvation,
So if by chance you find that road, then take it.

(Murder in Baghdad, p. 15)

Al-Hallaj is reluctant to accept this justification for abandoning his commitment to social change. His impulse is rather to create a world that more truly reflects the commandments of God, to make the world a more nurturing environment for the kind of spiritual quest in which he is engaged. But before he can fully explain himself to Shibli, they are interrupted by Ibrahim, one of their followers.

Ibrahim has come to warn al-Hallaj that he is in imminent danger. The authorities surrounding the caliph have discovered that al-Hallaj has been corresponding with rebel leaders in the empire. Among his correspondents are the al-Madhara’i brothers, the financial controllers of Egypt under the government of Ibn Tulun, who will later attempt to found his own dynasty, independent of the Abbasids.

Al-Hallaj replies he has corresponded with these men only to guide them to become better rulers:

These men you name are leaders of the nation;
They are also my friends, and have my love.
They promised me that if they should come to power
They will live righteously and not do ill;
They will grant the people their rights,
And the people will render them theirs.
They are my prime hope in this world, my dear Ibrahim,
Therefore, I quench their thirst with thought,
Refresh them with gentle words.

(Murder in Baghdad, p. 16)

Taking the more cynical traditional Islamic view toward politics, Shibli objects that these men, should they come to power, will behave like so many other tyrants before them, succumbing to corruption when they wield absolute power, even committing murder. But al-Hallaj refuses to concede. If he fails now, he argues, his ideas will live on in his words; they will carry his message to future generations, to people in a better position to heed his counsel.

Throughout this speech, Ibrahim grows more and more agitated. He urges al-Hallaj to flee eastward to the province of Khurasan, at the border of the empire, far from the caliph’s reach. Al-Hallaj refuses, declaring that there is no haven on earth that he would prefer to the company of his true friends, those who have already been martyred for their beliefs and worship God in heaven. He vows instead to preach to the people, speaking of God’s will and urging them to be as just and loving as their Lord. To show his rejection of Shibli’s more traditional Sufi withdrawal from the world, he casts off his patched cloak, which signifies his commitment to poverty and self-denial, and throws it to the ground.

In the third scene, the passers-by (merchant, preacher, and peasant) reappear, joined by three others from the crowd: a hunchback, a lame man, and a leper. The lot of them encounter three Sufis who are debating the wisdom of al-Hallaj’s dramatic gesture at the end of the second scene. Showing cynicism and unworldliness, all three sets of characters reveal themselves to be unready for al-Hallaj’s radically novel view of the world, in which politics, social justice, and ethics intertwine and reinforce one another.

Al-Hallaj himself comes onstage next, followed by three individuals, dressed alike and acting suspiciously. The crowd guesses them to be members of the shurtah, the caliph’s police force charged with keeping order in the large cities. The suspicion is justified, as the group goads al-Hallaj into declaring publicly his private vision wherein he felt he had become united with God. Once the admission is made public, the officer tries to arrest al-Hallaj, particularly because the mystic leader linked his personal awareness of God’s presence in the world around him to a condemnation of those who allow poverty and injustice to persist in this same world. God is perfect, he says, and desires to see that perfection reflected in the humans He has created to be His representatives on earth (Murder in Baghdad, p. 27). But this is not what He sees before Him on the streets of Baghdad:

Now, behind poverty, under its unfurled banner,
March poverty’s soldiers, the legions of evil vengeance;
Those malformed creatures of fearful appearance
Who are led by the devil, Vizier of the kingdom of poverty.
Murder, demagoguery, theft,
Betrayal, flattery, anger,
Aggression, tyranny:

These are the citizens of poverty’s realm, the battalions of Satan, its Vizier.
God, most high, disdains to see Himself in creatures like us
And He turns His face from us.
How then shall we purify our black hearts
So that they reflect God’s image?
So that they reveal His beauty?
With prayer?
With reading the Koran?
With pilgrimage?
With fasting in Ramadan?
Yes! But, mind you, these are only the first steps toward God.
These are steps taken by the feet.
But the Lord seeks the heart,
And only love, which is of the heart, pleases Him.

(Murder in Baghdad, pp. 28–29)


Abd al-Sabur’s Ibn Surayj is modeled on a real-life jurist, who died before the events portrayed in the play. The real Ibn Surayj was involved not in al-Hallaj’s second case but his first one, at the end of which he issued a legal opinion saying that judgement on the inner beliefs of someone in a state of inspiration like al-Hallaj lay outside the province of Islamic law, and should be left to God on the Day of Resurrection (Massignon, p. 370), His arguments fall into line with sayings by the Prophet Muhammad, such as, “anyone who accuses someone else of heresy (kufr) is equally deserving of that designation” (Wensinck, p. 40). In other words, for Muslims, charging someone with heresy means setting oneself on the same level as God. To claim the ability to look into people’s hearts and know that their words are heretical assumes the accuser has powers equal to God’s (a heretical thought). In Abbasid times, few Muslims were willing to behave so presumptuously and risk, according to the belief, eternal damnation (Massignon, p.378).

Although al-Hallaj does not directly call for a revolt against the government here, his plea to reform society and eliminate injustice and poverty would have been viewed with great nervousness by corrupt authorities like the Banu al-Furat, who held the vizierate at the time.

The policemen try to hustle al-Hallaj offstage before he says anything more, but their exit is temporarily interrupted by a Sufi, who seeks to stir the crowd: “Think. Are they arresting him because of what he said about love? / No, because of what he said about poverty” (Murder in Baghdad, p. 31). But when the crowd tries to defend him, al-Hallaj refuses their help. He deserves any punishment he gets, says al-Hallaj, because he has dared to reveal the secrets of his heavenly Beloved. The first half of the play ends somewhat surprisingly. Al-Hallaj does not embrace political activism by getting the crowd to prevent his arrest but is willingly led off to the palace to await judgment for heresy.

Act 2: Death

The second act focuses on al-Hallaj’s prison experience and trial. A brief scene in prison underscores his commitment to suffering and being punished to make up for what he perceives as his fault in revealing too many details about his union with God. Then comes the scene at court, where al-Hallaj is tried by a trio of qadis, or Muslim judges, for religious blasphemy.

The judges are a blend of fact and fiction. The chief judge, Abu Umar, was the presiding judge at al-Hallaj’s historical trial, and his character in the play conforms to his real-life image as a cultivated man-of-the-world who was quick to bend to the prevailing political winds (Massignon, p. 438). In the play, the other two real-life judges, whose characters are rather bland and obscure, are replaced by two invented characters, who serve as foils to Abu Umar. These are Ibn Surayj and Ibn Sulayman. Ibn Sulayman illustrates how a weak-willed but essentially good-hearted individual can be subverted and dominated by a stronger personality. He begins the trial genuinely interested in determining al-Hallaj’s innocence or guilt, but by the end, he acquiesces in Abu Umar’s verdict of guilt.

The lone advocate for the ideals of justice on the tribunal is Ibn Surayj, who consistently argues that no man can judge another on the question of heresy. Only God can make this judgement. First, he reiterates the legal opinion that Islamic law cannot judge on “a matter between a man and his Creator” (Murder in Baghdad, p. 66). Next he argues that the only crime he and his colleagues can render a verdict on is whether al-Hallaj sought to incite the people to rebel against the caliph and his deputies. In the midst of an exchange between al-Hallaj and Abu Umar on this issue, the proceedings are suddenly interrupted by a messenger carrying a letter from the vizier. The letter pardons al-Hallaj for any acts of political revolt but directs the court to re-open the question of heresy, for “[t]he Sultan may grant amnesty for a crime committed against the State / But God does not forgive one who sins against Him” (Murder in Baghdad, p. 71). This leads to a tense exchange between Ibn Surayj and Abu Umar.

Ibn Surayj: [to al-Hallaj] Do you believe in God?
Hallaj: He is our creator, and to Him we return.
Ibn Surayj: This is sufficient statement of his belief in God.
Abu Umar: Ibn Surayj,
I am not investigating his belief in God,
But the manner of his belief.
Ibn Surayj: The manner of his belief?
Do you mean to probe his soul?
Is this one of the ruler’s rights?
Or is it God’s right?
Abu Umar: This is the right of the Ecclesiastical Courts.
Ibn Surayj: No, it is God’s right, and His alone,
And I do not have the temerity to question a man’s faith.
If you will persist in committing this sinful …
Abu Umar: [Interrupting.] Yes, we will, Ibn Surayj.
Ibn Surayj: Then I will resign from this Court.
Abu Umar: That is your prerogative, Sir.

(Murder in Baghdad, p. 72)

Once Ibn Surayj has left the room in disgust, Abu Umar calls the witnesses to al-Hallaj’s heresy, including Shibli. A terrified Shibli gets drawn into explaining how mystics seek oneness with God. When asked if this is a practice of all mystics, or only al-Hallaj, he abruptly takes refuge in silence, which is understood by the court to be an accusation against al-Hallaj. The other witnesses, all members of the crowd who have been paid to accuse al-Hallaj of heresy, now chant their accusations. Judgement is rendered, and to the accompaniment of the mob’s jeers and taunts, al-Hallaj is led forth to his execution, which takes place offstage.

To be or not to be an activist?—the Sufi question

In Act One, Ibrahim comes to warn al-Hallaj that he is a wanted man, only to find him and his disciple Shibli in the middle of a central debate about whether Sufis should withdraw from the world in order to concentrate more fully on union with God, or whether they should remain committed to the basic Islamic goal of building a truly godly community on earth.

Al-Hallaj constitutes one of the earliest examples of a major Sufi leader becoming involved in the political affairs of his time, through his public preaching and willingness to advise political leaders. Although he acted as an individual and not as the leader of a brotherhood, he tried directly to change the irresponsible behavior of some factions of the caliph’s court through admonition, perhaps even lending his support to conspiratorial movements seeking to overthrow Abbasid power. In his verse play, Salah Abd al-Sabur exploits this perception of al-Hallaj as a social activist, joining it to recollections of the political role played by Sufism from the late Middle Ages right up to the early twentieth century.

The choice of al-Hallaj as hero is deliberate, because of his relevance to the dramatist’s own times. The medieval martyr becomes a prototype for the modern, politically committed intellectual who finds it untenable to function in isolation from the surrounding world. As Abd al-Sabur himself said about his motives for writing the drama:

The torment of al-Hallaj is an analogue for the torment of intellectuals in most modern societies and the confusion they experience in choosing between the sword and word. After having scorned the option of a purely personal salvation achieved by casting off the world and humanity from their shoulders, they have preferred instead to take the burden of humanity in its entirety upon their shoulders.

(Abd al-Sabur, Hayati fi al-shi’r p. 120; trans. T. DeYoung)

Sources and literary context

The early-to-mid 1960s constituted a remarkable period of innovation and florescence in the Egyptian theater. Although drama was a new art form, imported into the Arab world, Egypt had folk traditions that incorporated dramatic elements and harked back to the ancient Egyptians. It had furthermore been exposed to European drama since the dawn of the nineteenth century. The mid-twentieth-century saw a liberalization of Egyptian cultural life in which dramatists such as Yusuf Idris, Salah Abd al-Sabur and Abd al-Rahman al-Sharqawi sought inspiration from the traditional folk spectacles and shadow plays of popular Egyptian culture as well as from the current experiments in European avant-garde theater.

In all five of his dramatic works, Abd al-Sabur chose to return to the formalized tradition of the verse play. His choice was probably influenced by the success of a number of plays in this form in the West, most notably Murder in the Cathedral (1935) by T. S. Eliot. It was probably also influenced by a desire to rework the artifice-filled, static verse plays of Ahmad Shawqi, written between 1926 and 1932, which had attracted some renewed attention (Jayyar, p. 8).

A serious student of the theater, Abd al-Sabur wrote numerous studies of the Egyptian theatrical tradition, including an article on Shawqi as a dramatic poet. He himself translated T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral into Arabic in 1964, which would not be published until after his death in 1981 (Budayr, p. 12). It should be noted that a considerable number of critics argue against the position that Murder in the Catheral inspired Murder in Baghdad, including Salah Abd al-Sabur (see Boullata, p. 241). The author always emphasized that his inspiration was classical Greek tragedy and that, in al-Hallaj, he was seeking to create a hero in the Aristotelean sense, one with a tragic flaw that set the action in motion. His portrayal of al-Hallaj, by his own admission, was deeply influenced by his reading of Louis Massignon’s biography of the hero and by other Western sources on the subject (“Nadwat,” p. 5).

Events in History at the Time the Play Was Written

A thousand-year parallel—the not-so-distant past

Murder in Baghdad was published at the end of 1964, when Nasser’s socialist government was enjoying success in its campaign to suppress indigenous religio-political movements like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. At no time before or since would the orientation of Egyptian society be more resolutely secular. It is eerily prescient that Abd al-Sabur was able in the play to articulate issues that would come very much to the forefront by the mid-1970s, when Nasser’s successor, Anwar al-Sadat, would rehabilitate the Islamists and seek their support in his struggles against opponents among the secular intellectuals. These opponents—including Abd al-Sabur—had enthusiastically embraced an interpretation of al-Hallaj as someone who joined religion as private inspiration to a public activism that does not emphasize religious conformity. In their view, Sadat was betraying the legacy of Arab socialism (a brand of socialism that does not reject religion out of hand as “the opiate of the masses”) by letting capitalist speculators operate willy-nilly in the country without government oversight or control. Later the Islamists would turn on Sadat, and a violent faction among them would target him for assassination. But the increased popularity of Islamist groups and their ideology has meant that the regime of his successor, Husni Mubarak, has found it expedient to accommodate them wherever possible, at the expense not infrequently of the secular intelligentsia. In the early 1980s, the Muslim religious establishment was allowed to proceed with court cases seeking to ban writings deemed “anti-religious” or “obscene.” Classic texts like The Arabian Nights , along with numerous modern works, were included in the tally (also in WLA1T 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times). Such an atmosphere of increasing intolerance for divergent points of view or lack of conformity to religious norms can surely be seen as an element in the assassination of journalist Faraj Fawda (also spelled Farag Foda) in 1992 and the attempted assassination of Nobel-prize-winning novelist Najib Mahfuz in 1994 (see Mahfuz’s Miramar , also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern Literatures and Their Times). Thus, the contention that the play’s al-Hallaj is a stand-in for the tortured figure of the modern intellectual has gained relevance since publication, in ways al-Sabur could not have foreseen. Murder in Baghdad underscores the dangers facing truth seekers in many modern societies that have shown an increasing proclivity to suppress individual freedoms, especially freedom of thought.

Performance and reviews

Because Murder in Baghdad was a verse play—and therefore the dialogue was in Modern Standard Arabic rather than Egyptian Colloquial—it experienced some initial difficulty in getting performed. The play was first presented in the autumn of 1965 on al-Birnamij al-Thani—the Egyptian equivalent of the National Public Radio—a mode that emphasized its poetic, rather than dramatic elements (Khashaba, p. 68). Its first successful staging for the public (in the summer of 1967) took place at the University of al-Azhar, a centuries-old center for Islamic studies in the Arab world. The play attracted the al-Azhar officials because of the religious focus and “lack of female roles” [female actors would have violated the restrictions on sexual segregation in force on the al-Azhar campus at that time] (Sharif, p. 72). Given the controversial hero and the play’s bold treatment of a tension-filled relationship between religion and state, the willingness of the Sunni religious establishment to stage it at all bespeaks a tolerance and openness to multiple points of view characteristic of the best in Islamic tradition.

In 1966 Murder in Baghdad won the Egyptian State Encouragement Prize, the highest honor the government bestows on a single work. The play was also reviewed favorably, not once but twice (in 1966 and 1967) in the most prominent Arabic cultural periodical of the day, Al-Adab.The editors devoted one of their monthly “Roundtable” (“Nadwat al-adab”) features to a discussion of the play, involving Abd al-Sabur and two of Egypt’s foremost literary critics of the day, Abd al-Qadir al-Qitt and Izz al-Din Isma‘il. lsma‘il summed up the discussion, which centered on the use of the verse form:

[Al-Hallaj] is a mystic (Sufi), and it is not easy to speak about mystic emotions in the language of dry prose …. He is at the same time a man fighting for justice, which is also not an idea easily conveyed … without … something to make it soar. Here is the justification … to use poetry as a medium for expression.

(Ismail in “Nadwat,” p. 5)

—Terri DeYoung

For More Information

Abd al-Sabur, Salah. Hayati fi al-shi‘r.Beirut: Dar al-Awdah, 1969.

_____. Murder in Baghdad.Trans. Khalil Semaan. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1972.

Badawi, Muhammad Mustafa. Modern Arabic Drama in Egypt.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Boullata, Issa. Review of Murder in Baghdad. The Muslim World 63, no. 3 (July 1973): 241.

Budayr, Hilmi. Salah. Abd al-Sabur: qira’at fibibliyujrafiyah al-shair.Cairo: Dar al-Thaqafah, 1984.

Jayyar, Midhat. Masrah Shawqi al-shi‘r.Cairo: Dar al-Ma arif, 1992.

Khashabah, Sami. “Al-Nashat al-thaqafi fi al-watan al-Arabi.” al-Adab 13, no. 9 (September 1965): 66–68.

Kennedy, Hugh. The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates: The Islamic Near East from the Sixth to the Eleventh Century.London: Longman, 1986.

Massignon, Louis. The Passion of al-Hallaj: Mystic and Martyr of Islam.Vol. 1. Trans. Herbert Mason. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982.

“Nadwat al-adab: Ma’sat al-Hallaj.” al-Adab 14, no. 8 (August 1966): 3–7, 67.

Schimmel, Annemarie. The Mystical Dimensions of Islam.Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.

Sharif, Ayida. “al-Nashat al-thaqafi fi al-watan al-Arabi.” al-Adab 15, no. 10 (October 1967): 71–73.

Wensinck, Arendt Jan. The Muslim Creed: Its Genesis and Historical Development.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1932.