A Story About Sustainable History
Note of the editor
This is an edited version of the lecture presented by Mr Trevor Hilder in the Muslim Heritage Awareness Group (MHAG) meeting organized by FSTC at the Royal Society in London on March 30, 2011.***
Figure 1: A folio from the Akhlaq-i Nasiri, a philosophical treatise written by Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, the prestigious scientist and intellectual. (Source).
On 30th March 2011, I attended my first MHAG meeting. The theme of the meeting was Sustainable History, based on the book of this title by Dr Nayef Al-Rodhan. I only had ten minutes to introduce myself. Having read the book, I wondered how I could possibly say anything interesting in such a short space of time. After careful consideration, I decided to briefly describe the kind of work I do, then to tell a story.
Since 1974, I have earned my living in the field of information systems by developing them, managing their development and teaching others how to do these things. I have seen a lot of changes in this field over the last 35 years. The first computers I worked with could accept data on punched cards and paper tape and stored records on magnetic tapes. I could open the cabinet containing the memory for the computer I worked on and see every individual bit in the form of a magnetic doughnut threaded onto a few wires. The whole roomful of equipment worked with just a few thousand of these. Now I have a phone in my pocket which contains billions of them.
There are now over 3 billion mobile phones in the world - about one for every two people on the planet. Each of these has far more computing power than it took for the whole Apollo Project which landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon and got them home again in 1969.
The use of computers has recapitulated the 5,000 year evolution of literacy in one human life-time. This is actually extremely odd - yet we hardly think about it.
This technological development is the latest step in a process that is intimately associated with the rise of so-called Western Civilisation over the last five hundred years. In the year 1500 CE, Western Europe was a backward, uncivilised place which seemed to have little to offer the more sophisticated cultures to be found to the south and east. So what happened? Here is the story I told:
Once upon a time there was a handsome and talented youth who set off to seek his fortune.
After many adventures, he arrived at the entrance to a magnificent castle. He was invited in by the servants, who courteously escorted him to the castle's owner, who appeared to be a distinguished and charming old lady.
Unfortunately for our hero, this lady was an accomplished and wicked witch who very rapidly cast a spell over him, so that he forgot who he was and why he had set off on his adventures.
One day, she asked him why he had been born, and what he meant to accomplish in life. He replied that he had no idea. She said, "What! Do you not know that you were created to find the Inexhaustible Pitcher, and to bring it to me?"
Our hero became very excited and said, "How marvellous! But what is this Inexhaustible Pitcher?" She explained that it was a jug which, whenever it was poured, produced abundant water, and was immediately full again.
Figure 2: Front cover of Afghan Caravan by Safia Shah and Idries Shah (Octagon Press, 1990, paperback) in which a variant of the story narrated by the author can be found (see p. 164).
Our hero set off on his travels in search of this wonder. Wherever he went, he enquired after the Inexhaustible Pitcher. People reacted in many different ways - some thought him mad, others tried to talk him out of such a ridiculous quest. Some told him that they had heard of the Pitcher, and sent him on journeys which wasted years of his life.
Others felt that he was some kind of saint, and tried to follow him and emulate him in every way.
After many years, he was wearily walking along a road as the sun went down, when he came to a cross-roads where he saw an old man sitting by the way-side. He asked him whether he knew where the Inexhaustible Pitcher could be found. The old man asked him why he wanted it. Our hero explained that he had been born to find it and to take it to his mistress. This was what he had been created for.
The old man looked into the youth's eyes and sighed, then he said, "I don't know what makes you believe that you were created for such a purpose, but here you are". He handed him a clay pitcher, saying, 'Take this to your mistress. But it will not end your search.'
Our hero examined the pitcher and found that it was indeed inexhaustible. Whenever he poured it, water came out, then it immediately filled up again. But when he looked up, the old man was gone.
Joyfully, he set off and after many adventures, arrived back at his mistress's castle. She was overjoyed to see him, particularly when he showed her the Pitcher. Immediately, she used it to create a moat around her castle, and, using her magical arts, she created a draw-bridge across it which would only respond to her commands.
Our hero spent many happy days at the witch's castle, then one day she asked him what purpose he had in life. He admitted that he had no idea. She said, "What! Do you not know that you were created to go in quest of the Purse of Gold?" Excitedly, he asked her what this was.
"It is a purse which, when opened, contains a gold coin, but when this is removed, another coin appears in its place.", she replied.
"I must set off at once to find it!", he said.
The next morning, he set off early, and, wherever he went, he enquired about the Purse of Gold. He got much the same kind of response as he had before, but, undeterred, he continued on his way.
After many more years, he arrived at a lonely cross-roads, and the same old man was sitting there. Our hero asked the old man if he knew where the Purse of Gold could be found. As before, the old man asked him why he wanted it, and got much the same reply as before, "Because I was born for this quest!"
'Do you remember nothing of the time when you were seeking the Inexhaustible Pitcher?' asked the sage.
This sounded like nonsense to the traveller. 'That means nothing to me, sir,' he answered.
Figure 3: Shaikh Mihna and the Peasant: Page from a manuscript of the Mantiq al-Tayr (The Language of the Birds) of Farid al-Din ‘Attar (ca. 1142–1220). This painting illustrates a story that stresses the importance of the quest (talab). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Source).
The sage now reached into his pack and brought out a purse. 'This,' he said, 'is the Purse of Gold. Take it to your mistress. But remember, something may make you change your behaviour one day.'
For just a moment, the youth felt that there was something important in what the old man had said: but the feeling soon passed. More from politeness than for any other reason, he said: 'I am grateful for the Purse. Please give me your advice.'
'I'll do better than that,' said the old man. He took out a tiny, cotton bag and handed it to the wayfarer. 'Remember this:' he said, 'if you throw this herbal powder into a fire, anyone sitting beside it will vanish forever.'
The youth looked blank, but he thanked the old man, put the bag of powder in his pocket, and set off along the road. He soon forgot all about it.
The old man sighed and shook his head as he watched the youth disappear into the distance.
The young man eventually arrived at the witch's castle. She was delighted to see him and soon settled down to producing hoards of gold coins from the purse, while the young man felt tremendously happy at what he had achieved.
Eventually, the witch's contentment began to wane. Using her enchantments, she persuaded the young man to set off in search of the Most Beautiful Girl in All the World, and to bring her back when he found her.
The young man set off once more, asking everyone he met if they knew where he could find the Most Beautiful Girl in All the World.
He soon discovered that this girl's name was Hikma, and found his way to where she lived. She was indeed stunningly beautiful, and he soon fell madly in love with her. She was also very strongly attracted to him, and he easily persuaded her to return with him to the castle where he lived.
Eventually, the couple arrived at the castle, and were taken into the presence of the witch. They found her sitting by the fire, piling up coins all around her from the magic purse, in spite of the fact that the whole castle was groaning under a huge weight of gold. The young man was delighted to see her, but Hikma screamed in horror at the sight of the old hag. The witch turned and began to weave her enchantments, but Hikma cried, 'Save me, kind youth, for I love you!'
As soon as he heard these words, the memory of everything which had happened came flooding back into the young man's mind. He opened the bag which the sage had given him, and threw the contents into the fire where the old hag was sitting. She vanished, never to be seen again.
The young couple took over the castle, and, thanks to the powers of the Inexhaustible Pitcher and the Purse of Gold, lived happily ever after .
In the ten minutes I spoke at the meeting, I only had time to tell this story - I could not explain its relevance to the theme of the meeting. Like all good stories, this one's meaning is open to interpretation by the listener, and my understanding of it only uncovers my perspective. When I first heard the story in the summer of 1984, I identified with the young and rather foolish hero, but for current purposes, it is worth putting Western Civilisation in his place. The old man might then represent the more ancient civilisations, with their bafflement at the peculiar compulsions that appear to drive this youngster.
Figure 31: Illustration from a Kalila wa-Dimna manuscript (1200–1220 CE, Bibliothéque Nationale, Paris, France). This is an illustration from Ibn al-Muqaffa's work entitled Kalila wa-Dimna, which he translated from Persian to Arabic in the middle of the 8th century CE. This book of animal fables with a moral and a political message became, and still is, immensely popular, and was a landmark in the development of Arabic literary prose in the Golden Age of Islam. (Source).
If so, what is the Inexhaustible Pitcher? For me, it represents the waves of infrastructure which have been developed over the last five hundred years. The first of these would be the mass publication of books and the seaborne trade routes opened up after the discovery of the Americas, supported by the mapping of the globe. Then we get the rise of mass literacy, the infrastructure to support modern cities, the building of canals and railways, sanitation systems (the Inexhaustible Pitcher is what we all take for granted when we turn a tap and water comes out), then roads and motor vehicles, radio and TV, and in our own times, computers and the internet.
The Purse of Gold represents to me the peculiar compulsion that seems to drive the current denizens of Wall Street and the City of London.
The old hag symbolises the fact that these developments have often been driven by low-level fixations such as greed and fear, which some of us might consider to be unworthy aspects of the human self left over from our evolution from our ape ancestors.
The name Hikma is the Arabic word for Wisdom. The demand to capture Hikma represents the attempt to extend the compulsive drives described above into the more refined area of understanding the nature of consciousness, where they no longer work. The story suggests that this attempt, which we seem to be embarking on now, will lead to the dissolution of the compulsion and a move to a different level of civilisation.
On this optimistic note, I would like to end this piece and leave the reader to consider whether this strange Afghan story is a mere curiosity, or whether it really does have something to teach us. Are we now in need of some Magical Powder to help us to create a truly global civilisation? If so, where are we going to find it?
 I first heard this story from Idries Shah at dinner in Langton Green in Kent, England on 7th July 1984. I wrote it down when I got home, then forgot about it, until I rediscovered it recently. A variant of it can be found on page 164 of Afghan Caravan edited by Safia Shah, published by Octagon Press, London 1990.
* Trevor Hilder is the managing director of Nail Soup Ltd a provider of ICT services to a wide range of clients across a range of industries. He has a long-standing interest in systems thinking and its relationship to global cultural issues.
by: Trevor Hilder, Mon 13 June, 2011