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The Wise Sailimai, A Muslim Tale from China

A Muslim folk tale from Ayat Jamilah: Beautiful Signs, A Treasury of Islamic Wisdom for Children and Parents collected and adapted by Sarah Conover and Freda Crane (Spokane: Eastern Washington University Press, 2004); originally from Mythology and Folklore of the Hui, A Muslim Chinese People collected by Shujiang Li and Karl W. Luckert. Used with permission.

Begin by saying, "Today we will hear a story about a wise young girl. She will teach us how love surrounds us in many ways."

Note: "Sailimai" is pronounced SAIL-ee-my. "Hui" is pronounced 'Whee.

Long, long ago in the country of China, lived a young woman of the Muslim Hui people whose name was Sailimai. Although she was a farm girl, too poor to attend school, Sailimai nonetheless paid close attention to life around her. When an old woman in the village needed help, but was too proud to ask for it, Sailimai would know just the right time to visit. When children scraped their knees, Sailimai arrived to assist, even if they were not her own children. She may have been poor and unschooled, but Sailimai possessed a wise and deep heart.

Once, her father-in-law, a carpenter...

(Leader: Who has the hammer that the carpenter used? Please stand.)

...named Ali, was ordered by the emperor to make some repairs in his palace. Fearful of doing less than his best for the emperor, Ali pushed himself to work his very hardest, working both day and night. Yet, as it sometimes happens, the time came when Ali went beyond his limits. Dizzy with fatigue, hands shaking, momentarily careless, Ali tipped over the emperor's most precious vase. The pieces shattered—all too loudly—in the great hall. Servants came running.

Soon enough the emperor heard the story of his ruined, priceless vase.

"Bring this carpenter...

(Leader: Who has the hammer that the carpenter used?)

...to me at once," he demanded.

Handcuffed and escorted by three guards, Ali, trembling, stood speechless before the emperor. The emperor drew his sword. As it hovered over Ali's head, Ali at last spoke up; "Forgive me your worship! I did not mean to break the vase. I promise to pay for it. I promise to pay!"

The emperor lowered his sword just a bit. "A poor, old Hui like yourself could never replace such a treasure. Do not jest with me!"

"Have mercy on me," Ali begged. "I will pay."

The emperor re-sheathed his sword with a sly smile. "Very well old Hui, I do not expect you to replace my vase. Instead, I will give you ten days to find me four things." The emperor hesitated in thought, tugging lightly on his beard. "The first thing you must get me...

(Leader: Who has the "Number 1" sign?)

"...is something more black than the bottom of a pan."

(Leader: Who has the pan?)

"Second: ...

(Leader: Who has the "Number 2" sign?)

"...You must find me something clearer than a mirror."

(Leader: Who has the mirror?)

The emperor waited a moment, watching Ali's reactions, but Ali stared blankly at the floor. The emperor continued. "The third:...

(Leader: Who has the "Number 3" sign?)

"...Something stronger than steel."

(Leader: Who has our strong metal?)

The emperor smirked. "And lastly,...

(Leader: Here is the fourth thing. Who has the "Number 4" sign?)

"...find me something as vast as the sea.

(Leader: Who has the picture of the vast sea?)

"...If you fail at any of these, I will chop off your head." Finished, the emperor smiled broadly, quite pleased with himself.

Ali looked stricken. "How," he wondered, "could I achieve these impossible tasks? Does the emperor simply wish to torture me for the last ten days of my life?" Sick with dread, he hung his head, turned away and headed home.

For the next week he could neither eat nor sleep. His family knew that something was terribly amiss, but Ali would not discuss it. "Please father," Sailimai said, calling her father-in-law by the customary term of respect. "What is the trouble? Perhaps we can help?" Begging and pleading, Sailimai at last coaxed Ali into talking. He cradled his head between his hands and wept as he named the emperor's four impossible tasks.

But Sailimai responded as if these were everyday requests. "This isn't a problem! Father, don't worry. I will have all these things when the emperor comes tomorrow. I shall present them to him myself."

Ali assumed that Sailimai was trying only to comfort him. He didn't want her to get in trouble with the emperor too. "Don't be foolish, Sailimai," he warned. These four things do not exist. The emperor just wanted to make me suffer further before killing me."

Sailimai persisted. "Father, I really do have these things. I know you don't believe me now. But wait until tomorrow. I will show them to both you and the emperor!"

And so it was that the very next day, the tenth day since the broken vase, the emperor appeared—surrounded by troops—at Ali's door. "Old Hui! Come forward and give to me the four things you owe me," bellowed the emperor.

Ali came outside with Sailimai by his side. They both bowed humbly, never daring to meet the emperor's gaze. Sailimai then stepped forward. "Your majesty," she said, "The four things you requested are ready to be presented. Please name them one by one."

"The first thing I must have, "said the emperor, "is that which is more black than the bottom of a pan."

(Leader: Who has our "Number 1" sign?)

He touched the sheath of his sword with a glint in his eye.

Sailimai answered, "This, your majesty, can be found in the bottomless, greedy heart."

The emperor hid his surprise. This girl, he reassured himself, cannot be so smart. She is a farm girl. He nodded briefly, "The next thing you must present is something more clear than a mirror. Do you have that?" he asked.

(Leader: Who has our "Number 2" sign?)

Sailimai answered: "Yes, knowledge offers a clarity greater than any mirror."

The emperor looked dumbstruck. "Well," he stammered, " Do you have something stronger than steel to give me?"

(Leader: Who has our "Number 3" sign?)

"Love," said Sailimai, "is the strongest thing in the world."

Knowing he had been bested, the emperor stood speechless. Ali glanced at Sailimai, and stood a little taller. At last the emperor cleared his throat and made his last request.

(Leader: Who has the "Number 4" sign?)

"And what do you have, that could possibly be as vast as the sea?" he asked.

"A virtuous heart is as vast as the sea, your majesty." Her head lowered, Sailimai smiled and said not more.

Flustered and humbled, the emperor sputtered, "It's time to leave. Old Hui, you are hereby pardoned!" He turned to his troops and shouted, "March!"

As the Emperor of China distanced himself, Sailimai held her father-in-law's hand. Together, she and Ali bowed in relief and gratitude to Allah. Because of Sailimai's wise heart, Ali could now live a long and happy life.

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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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