Hatim Story

More Generous Than Hatim

Written by Jon Mandaville

Illustrated by Brian Smith

Out on the windswept high plateau in northern Najd, the land turns lush with grass and flowers when spring rains come; there is relief from even the harshest of earth's settings. God is generous.

On a ridge above the plain there is a place where, years ago, passing caravans would slow, their riders picking up with relish a new topic of conversation to carry them the many weary miles beyond. Today even the taxi driver on the new highway to Hayil eases up on the accelerator, waves vaguely toward the ridge and says, "See that dip in the hills over there? They say Hatim al-Tay is buried there."

"Oh?" says the rider politely, glad to break the monotony. "Who's he?"

The driver cranes his head around, looks incredulously at his fare. "You haven't heard of Hatim?!" His eyes back on the road, he settles with obvious satisfaction behind the wheel. "He's one of the most famous of all Arabs. There are many stories about him. They say, for example. . ." and one by one the stories are brought out, carefully measured to fill the hours and miles.

We all have our folk heroes, some of them, like Paul Bunyan, pure fiction, others, like Davy Crockett, once real but painted larger than life for later generations. Fiction or not, their popularity says something about the people who keep the folk tales alive. And for the Arabs there will always be Hatim, a man who gave and gave and gave again, a man who could not give too much of himself and his possessions to any living thing in need. With an Arab the key to manliness and honor is hospitality; Hatim is hospitality epitomized for all time.

Historians, typically a cautious lot and wary of myth and legend, can't say much about the life of Hatim. Like the epic giants of Homer's Troy he lived in an age when history was recited as poetry around the after-dinner campfire. His home certainly was central Arabia, his time the end of the Days of Ignorance, the label Muslims use for the historical period preceding the Prophethood of Muhammad. This puts him on the scene about A.D. 590, living during the youth of the Prophet.

According to the earliest sources, Hatim lost his father when young and was raised by his grandfather. The raising wasn't easy. His habit of toddling over and giving away whatever happened to be in his hands to friends and strangers alike was a source of pride and even boasting for his family at first; but as the years passed and the habit remained, the indulgent smiles grew fixed and the boasting fell away. Enough was enough.

The last straw came one day, the story goes, when Hatim was out on the plain watching over his grandfather's small but select herd of camels. A group of riders appeared over the hill, heading north for Iraq. Amongst them were Nabigha al-Dhubyani, Ubaid ibn al-Abras, and Bishr ibn Abi Khazim, three famous poets off to trade their verse for gold at the court of the King of Hirah.

It was Hatim's great moment. He proudly demanded they dismount and make camp for the night, a demand they were more than happy to accept. Then, before the bemused gaze of the guests, he set about preparing a lavish feast fit for the would-be poets laureate, its main course consisting of the choicest camels of his grandfather's herd.

That was the end of the family's sponsorship. The next day Hatim began his wanderings, and along with him the stories as well, stories of hospitality grown more formidable with every telling. How far he traveled in real life no one knows, perhaps in fact no farther than the boundaries of the Arabian Peninsula. But even while he lived his fame passed beyond these limits.

Out in the East, for example, the tales of Hatim reached their most fantastic form in the hands of Indian and Indonesian Muslims, a fair exchange for the Sanskrit fables Kalila and Dimna (Aramco World, July-August, 1972). There, by the 17th century, a full-length adventure novel was being avidly read and recited, based on the man from Najd. The Indian tales of Hatim still make fascinating reading for today's curious reader.

The theme of the adventures is prosaic enough, the standard Seven Tasks set for a hero, prince to win the hand of a maiden. But the twist is decidedly Hatim's. For the hero is not Hatim, but rather a stranger—the prince whom Hatim meets wandering disconsolate on the desert. It is for this prince that Hatim undertakes the Seven Tasks, and all the gold and silver won by performing them he distributes to the poor and needy. The prince in the end, of course, is wed to the princess while Hatim, like the legendary western cowboy, rides off alone into the desert, his only satisfaction the knowledge that he has acted generously.

The setting of the Seven Tasks is a Technicolor fairyland. Caught in a magic mountain, he escapes on a cockleshell bark across a billowing foamy lake surrounded by precipices over which pour torrents of crimson fire. Throughout his trials, as in earlier, simpler versions, Hatim gives freely to animals as well as humans; each and every one, he says, is a creation of the Almighty God. But here in the Indian version he draws the line finally ... at dragons. The first he meets swallows him alive. Thanks to a talisman given him by a bear, Hatim proves indigestible and the dragon, irritated by the mouthful tramping about in his belly, vomits him forth and, growling, stomps away. The rest of the dragons that Hatim encounters he slays without hesitation.

The stories of Hatim traveled west as well. They dropped, for example, into one of the great classics of European literature, the Decameron of Boccacio. There, in the story "Mitridanes and Natan," a great king is described as excessively proud of his reputation for generosity. He grows more and more jealous of a young man called Natan, who is said among the people to be the most generous man alive. Mitridanes in fury commands the execution of Natan. The youth, learning that Mitridanes wants his life, offers it freely as the supreme act of generosity; whereupon Mitridanes backs down, conceding Natan to be the more generous man. As the perceptive French scholar Georges Thouvenin has noted, the story is a nearly exact parallel to one of the most popular of the tales told about Hatim.

How the 14th-century Florentine humanist picked up the Hatim theme is a mystery. It must be relevant that northern Italy was doing brisk business with Syria in Boccacio's day, and that Boccacio himself belonged to a respectable merchant family.

Whatever the source, however, Hatim, barely disguised as the knightly Natan, fit Boccacio's literary needs and those of the Renaissance public exactly. It was Arabic poetry, after all, which helped begin the mode of romantic chivalry in the West centuries earlier; Boccacio, noted for his role in translating that mode into the fresh and lyric humanism of a new Europe, no more than completed the circle in choosing the Arab Hatim as the hero of the story.

Thus, far to the east and well to the west Hatim's stories were kept alive, while generation after generation, century after century, they were told again in the central lands of Islam. Late in the 15th century the Persian man of letters Kashifi wrote a Tales of Hatim, then used the stories to exemplify the textbook on ethics he wrote for the Timurid ruler of Persia. This textbook, a great popular success in Persia, in turn was translated into Turkish a generation later; the translation was dedicated to Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, and from the court in Istanbul the stories spread throughout the Ottoman Empire, enshrining in legend the very real spirit of hospitality and generosity that has always been a hallmark of Arab culture.

Jon Mandaville is Associate Professor of History and Middle East Studies in Portland State University.

This article appeared on pages 21-24 of the January/February 1976 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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Hatimtai or Hatim Tai (also Hatem at-Ta'i i.e. Hatim of the Tai tribe), formally Hatem ibn Abdellah ibn Sa'ad at-Ta'i (Arabic: حاتم بن عبد الله بن سعد الطائي) was a famous pre-Islamic (Jahiliyyah) Arabian poet, and the father of the Sahaba Adi ibn Hatim and Safana bint Hatem. He was a Christian[1], and belonged to the Ta'i Arabian tribe. Stories about his extreme generosity have made him an icon to Arabs up till the present day, as in the proverbial phrase "more generous than Hatem" (Arabic: أكرم من حاتم).

At-Ta'i lived in Ha'il (now in Saudi Arabia). He was mentioned in some Hadiths by Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. He died in 578, and he didn't overtake Islam[2]. He was buried in Toran, Ha'il (picture of his tomb). The tomb is described in the Arabian Nights [3].

He lived in the sixth century CE, was a legendary personality famous for his generosity, goodness and adventures. He also figures in The Arabian Nights . Accoding to the legends associated with him in many books and stories : He was the most famous personality in Tai (Najd province in the central part of the Arabian Peninsula, now in Saudi Arabia). He is a well-known figure in the Middle East and India.

He traveled to different and dangerous places far away to solve the seven question he faced for justice and truth and to help the poor and the weaker people who were in need of help. All over the world, there are many books written and translated about him. Also several movies and TV Series were produced about his interesting adventures.

Rozat-ul-Sufa mentions that “In the eighth year after the birth of his eminence the Prophet, died Noushirwan the Just, and Hatim Tai the generous, both famous for their virtues.” [4], around in 579 CE. According to D'Herbelot, his tomb is still present at a small village called Anwarz, in Arabia[5].

Hatim’s son Adi, who succeeded him, fled from the Muslims, but later converted into Islam. His sister Sufana was taken as a prisoner but was released by the Prophet Muhammad[6] upon hearing about her father. She said that she was the daughter of someone who ransomed prisoners, fed the poor and helped those in distress. As the daughter of such a man she could not accept her freedom unless all the members of her tribe were also freed. The prophet set all prisoners of Banu Tai free [7].

The celebrated Persian poet Sa‘dī, in his Gulistan (Rose-Garden) writes:

"Hatim Taï no longer exists but his exalted name will remain famous for virtue to eternity. Distribute the tithe of your wealth in alms; for when the husbandman lops off the exuberant branches from the vine, it produces an increase of grapes."[8]


1. ^ Biography of Sheikh Bahi Dadiza (Arabic)

2. ^ Kitab al-Aghani by Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani

3. ^ http://books.google.com/books?id=xd5VonTOppMC&pg=PA290&lpg=PA290&dq= hatim+tomb&source=web&ots=gJjqKxrlpt&sig=SFNWeYUvJ95FVOwwQpo7XAf7Ouo E. J. Brill's First Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1913-1936

4. ^ http://persian.packhum.org/persian/pf?file=08501030&ct=0

5. ^ http://books.google.com/books?id=s_4KV4Ixq4IC&pg=PA132&dq=Hatim+Tai#PPA1...

6. ^ http://www.salaam.co.uk/knowledge/biography/viewentry.php?id=1920 Hatim Tai

7. ^ Campaign Against Banu Tai

8. ^ http://www.sacred-texts.com/isl/arp/arp159.htm HATIM TAI, THE GENEROUS ARAB CHIEF

9. ^ http://books.google.com/books?id=s_4KV4Ixq4IC&pg=PA132&dq=Hatim+Tai#PPA1... Persian Portraits: A Sketch of Persian History, Literature and Politics By F. F. Arbuthnot


Arabian Poetry, by W. A. Clouston, [1881], at sacred-texts.com


p. 99



HOW frail are riches and their joys!

Morn builds the heap which eve destroys;

Yet can they leave one sure delight—

The thought that we've employed them right.

What bliss can wealth afford to me,

When life's last solemn hour I see?—

When Mavia's sympathising sighs

Will but augment my agonies?

Can hoarded gold dispel the gloom

That death must shed around his tomb?

Or cheer the ghost which hovers there,

And fills with shrieks the desert air?

What boots it, Mavia, in the grave,

Whether I loved to waste or save?

The hand that millions now can grasp

In death no more than mine shall clasp.

Were I ambitious to behold

Increasing stores of treasured gold,

Each tribe that roves the desert knows

I might be wealthy, if I chose.

p. 100

But other joys can gold impart;

Far other wishes warm my heart;—

Ne’er may I strive to swell the heap

Till want and woe have ceased to weep.

With brow unaltered I can see

The hour of wealth or poverty:

I've drunk from both the cups of Fate,

Nor this could sink, nor that elate.

With fortune blest, I ne’er was found

To look with scorn on those around;

Nor for the loss of paltry ore,

Shall Hatem seem to Hatem poor.

HATIM TAI was an Arabian chief who lived a short time prior to the promulgation of Mohammedanism. He has been so much celebrated through the East for his generosity, that even at the present day the greatest encomium which can be given to a generous man is to say that he is "as liberal as Hatim." He was also a poet; but his talents were principally exerted in recommending his favourite virtue. An Arabian author thus emphatically describes Hatim's character: "His poems expressed the charms of beneficence; and his practice evinced that he wrote from the heart." The instances related of Hatim's generosity are innumerable; and the following are selected as affording a lively picture of Arabian manners.

The Emperor of Constantinople having heard much of Hatim's liberality, resolved to make trial of it. For this purpose he despatched a person from his court to request a particular horse which he knew the Arabian Prince valued above all his other possessions. The officer arrived at Hatim's abode in a Clark tempestuous night, at a season when all the horses were at pasture in the meadows. He was received in a manner suitable to the dignity of the imperial envoy, and treated that night with the utmost hospitality. The next day the officer delivered to Hatim his message from the Emperor, at which Hatim appeared greatly concerned. "If," said he, "you had yesterday apprised me of your errand, I should instantly have complied with the Emperor's request, but the horse he asks is now no more: being surprised by your sudden arrival, and having nothing else to regale you with, I ordered that particular horse to be killed, and served up to you last night for supper." (The Arabians prefer the flesh of horses to any other food.) Hatim immediately ordered the finest horses to be brought, and begged the ambassador to present them to his master. The Emperor could not but admire this mark of Hatim's generosity, and confessed that he truly deserved the title of the most liberal among men.

p. 407

It was the fate of Hatim to give umbrage to other monarchs. Numan, King of Yemen, conceived a violent jealousy against him, on account of his reputation; and thinking it easier to destroy than surpass him, the envious prince commissioned one of his sycophants to rid him of his rival. The courtier hastened to the desert where the Arabs were encamped. Discovering their tents at a distance, he reflected that he had never seen Hatim, and was contriving means to obtain a knowledge of his person, without exposing himself to suspicion. As he advanced, deep in meditation, he was accosted by a man of an amiable figure, who invited him to his tent. He accepted the invitation, and was charmed with the politeness of his reception. After a splendid repast, he offered to take leave, but the Arab requested him to prolong his visit.

"Generous stranger," answered the officer, "I am confounded by your civilities; but an affair of the utmost importance obliges me to depart."

"Might it be possible for you," replied the Arab, "to communicate to me this affair, which seems so much to interest you? You are a stranger in this place; if I can be of any assistance to you, freely command me."

The courtier resolved to avail himself of the offer of his host, and accordingly imparted to him the commission he had received from Numan. "But how," continued he, "shall I, who have never seen Hatim, execute my orders? Bring me to the knowledge of him, and add this to your other favours."

"I have promised you my service," answered the Arab. "Behold, I am a slave to my word. Strike!" said he, uncovering his bosom—"spill the blood of Hatim, and may my death gratify the wish of your prince, and procure you the reward you hope for. But the moments are precious; defer not the execution of your king's command, and depart with all possible expedition; the darkness will aid your escape from the revenge of my friends: if to-morrow you be found here, you are inevitably undone."

p. 408

These words were as a thunderbolt to the courtier. Struck with a sense of his crime and the magnanimity of Hatim, he fell down on his knees, exclaiming: "God forbid that I should lay a sacrilegious hand on you! Nothing shall ever urge me to such baseness." He then quitted the tent and took the road again to Yemen.

The cruel monarch, at the sight of his favourite, demanding the head of Hatim, the officer gave him a faithful account of what had passed. Numan in astonishment cried out: "It is with justice, O Hatim! that the world reveres you as a kind of divinity. Men instigated by a sentiment of generosity may bestow their whole fortune; but to sacrifice life is are action above humanity!"

After the decease of Hatim, the Arabs over whom he presided refused to embrace Islam. For this disobedience Mohammed condemned them all to death, except the daughter of Hatim, whom he spared on account of her father's memory. This generous woman, seeing the executioners ready to perform the cruel command, threw herself at the Prophet's feet, and conjured him either to take away her life or pardon her countrymen. Mohammed, moved with such nobleness of sentiment, revoked the decree he had pronounced, and, for the sake of Hatim's daughter, granted pardon to the whole tribe.

[It is related that Hatim, the poet En-Nabigha of Dubyān, and a man of the tribe of Nabīt were at the same time suitors for the hand of Mawia, the daughter of Afsār. Mawia, disguised as a poor woman, visited each of her three lovers, to partake of their hospitality. Each killed a camel on the occasion: the man of Nabīt and the poet En-Nabigha placed before her the tail of the camel each had killed; but Hatim gave her the fattest pieces of the hind part, of the hunch, and of the part between the shoulders, which are esteemed the greatest dainties. It so happened that when Hatim came to woo Mawia he found both his rivals there on the same business. Mawia desired each of them to describe his way of life in verses, promising to give her

p. 409

hand to him who excelled in poetical talent. En-Nabigha and the man of Nabīt in their verses boasted of the good use which they made of their riches; and when it came to Hatim's turn he recited the poem, beginning: "O Mawia! riches come in the morning and depart in the evening," which Carlyle has freely rendered into English (pp. 99, 100 of this volume). When the table was spread, the servants put before each of the wooers that portion of camel's flesh which he had given Mawia when she visited them in disguise. En-Nabigha and the man of Nabīt thereupon slunk away ashamed. Hatim at this time had already one wife, whom Mawia required him to divorce before she would give him her hand in marriage. "Never," said Hatim, "never shall I put away the mother of my daughter," and he departed home. But on the death of his wife, shortly after this, he renewed his wooing, and married Mawia, who bore him the spirited daughter that saved her tribe from destruction by her intercession with the Prophet, as above mentioned.—A number of Hatim's poetical effusions are preserved by Oriental writers; among these is the following little piece (paraphrased, by Miss Louise Zoller, a young lady of considerable literary culture, from the German version of Von Hammer-Purgstall):

How many are sordid slaves to their pelf!

Little doth Avarice give, and evil its gifts.

Praise be to God! riches serve as my slaves,

Freeing captives forlorn, helping the needful.

Mean minds are contented with that which is mean;

But he who truly is great aspires to deeds which are noble.

Hatim is the hero of a modern Persian romance, of which an English translation, by Mr. Duncan Forbes, was published in 1830. This work professes to recount Hatim's marvellous adventures in distant lands—going about relieving the distressed and removing obstacles to the union of fond lovers. The Romance of Hatim Taï appears to be mainly compiled from ancient Sanskrit fables and tales; and the adventures ascribed to the generous Arab chief are purely fictitious, but very

p. 410

entertaining.—Like Zuhayr the poet, Hatim is said by Muslim writers to have predicted the advent of Muhammad.

"Hatim Taï no longer exists," says the celebrated Persian poet Sa‘dī, in his Gulistan, or Rose-Garden; "but his exalted name will remain famous for virtue to eternity. Distribute the tithe of your wealth in alms; for when the husbandman lops off the exuberant branches from the vine, it produces an increase of grapes."]


Haitim al-Tai

While there's no doubt that Hatim al-Tai is a real man, there is a lot of romance about who he was, and about his actual acts of generosity and hospitality - but one thing is certain - he was very, very generous

Hail boasts a number of famous heroes and prominent poets - amongst them Zeid Al-Khair (or Al-Khail) Al-Taiee, Hayyan bin Olaiq, Ruwaished bin Kuthair, Qais bin Jerwah, and Al-Trimmah bin Adie. The most famous of them all is legendary poet and story teller, the extremely generous Hatim al-Tai.

Every civilization has its real life folk heroes whose exploits have taken on legendary proportions. Like the Irish Calhoun, Greek Aristides, or American Davey Crockett, Hatim al-Tai is a larger than life character whose exploits have been passed down from generation to generation and are much loved throughout the Middle East, North Africa, India and Indonesia.

Hatim al-Tai's exploits all revolve around his legendary generosity. He features in 101 Arabian Nights by Richard Burton as the ghost of Hatim al-Tai, who is generous even in death. He is the very personification of Bedouin hospitality.

Hatim was the chief of Taiy tribe - one of the largest in Hail. He lived in an age when history was recited as poetry around the after-dinner campfire. Specifically, he lived around the end of the Days of Ignorance, about A.D. 590, which means he was living during the youth of the Prophet (pbuh).

According to the earliest sources, Hatim lost his father when he was young and was raised by his grandfather. Raising the infant wasn't easy for his grandfather. Hatim's habit of giving away whatever happened to be in his hands to friends and strangers was a source of pride and even boasting for the old man at first; but as the years passed and the habit remained, his grandfather's resources grew smaller and the boasting fell away.

The final straw, so to speak, came when Hatim was watching over his grandfather's herd of camels. A group of riders appeared. Among them, three famous poets off to trade their verse for gold. Hatim (always hospitable) invited them to make camp for the night, and then, before the bemused guests, prepared a lavish feast consisting of the choicest camels of his grandfather's herd.

Hatim began his wanderings soon after that - always preceded by the stories told by the amused poets - stories which grew more hospitable with every telling.

How far he traveled in real life no one knows, perhaps in fact no farther than the boundaries of Hail, but even while he lived his fame passed far and wide.

Arabic poetry inspired the age of chivalry in the West. One man in particular, the Italian writer and diplomat Boccacio, was noted for his role in translating Arabian poems into the romantic style which wooed Europe.

So it's no wonder that Hatim ended up as 'Natan' in one of the great classics of European literature, "The Decameron" by Boccacio. Here, he is a young commoner whose generosity offends a great king. On hearing that the king has ordered his death, Natan offers himself freely as a supreme gesture of generosity, whereupon the king backs down and concedes that Natan is, indeed, the more generous man.

200 years later, the Persian author Kashifi wrote "Tales of Hatim" as a textbook on ethics for the ruler of Persia. This textbook, a popular success at the time, was translated into Turkish a generation later, and dedicated to Sultan Suleiman - from there the stories spread throughout the Ottoman Empire.

By the 17th century Hatim's fame had spread to India and Indonesia where a full-length novel based on "The Man From Najd" were told, enshrining for once and for all a global legend of the very real spirit of hospitality and generosity that has always been a hallmark of Arab culture

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