There was once a Muslim emperor who was always willing to listen to complaints from his subjects. Sometimes they would file complaints through the proper channels, and then the emperor would do the needful. At other times the emperor had a special way of receiving complaints. Outside the main gate of the palace he kept a big gong. Anyone who had a complaint could come and sound the gong. If the person sounded it only once, that meant that he had lost a quarrel with someone, which he felt he should have won. If the gong sounded twice, it meant that somebody always worked very hard but felt he was not getting proper wages. If it sounded three times, it meant that somebody’s house had been robbed, and he was looking for the thief. If the gong sounded four times, it meant that somebody had murdered someone.
The emperor’s soldiers used to watch and see how many times the person lodging the complaint struck the gong. Then they would immediately bring the person to the emperor and tell him what the complaint was about. One day a man struck the gong four times, which meant that there had been a homicide.
The soldiers asked him, “Who has killed whom?”
The man said, “Somebody killed my father.”
The soldiers asked, “When was he killed?”
“Forty years ago,” the man answered.
The palace guards couldn’t believe their ears. “So only now you want punishment?” they asked.
“Yes,” said the man. “I just came to know that my father had been killed. My mother told me this morning.”
The guards asked, “Why did your mother not tell you before?”
The man answered, “Because if she had told me, then I would have killed one of the king’s ministers. This particular minister killed my father forty years ago, and he is still in office!”
“Are you saying that the minister should be executed?” they asked.
“Exactly,” the man said.
The palace guards brought the man before the emperor, and told the emperor the whole story. The emperor turned to his subject and said, “You have to know who asked the minister to kill your father. The minister was only carrying out my order. Are you saying that I should be punished as well?”
The man said, “I can’t go so far as to say that. But I have not seen my father for forty years. Indeed, that is a tragic loss. During these forty years the minister has gotten so much in salary. As compensation for my father’s death, may I receive only one month’s salary of the minister?”
The emperor said, “I am ready to give you the equivalent of forty years of the minister’s salary — whatever money he has earned from the day he killed your father. Go and find out the exact date of your father’s death from your mother, and then come back and tell me.”
The man’s mother had forgotten the day, the year — everything. But the minister had kept a record. It had only been thirty-five years. The emperor summoned the man back to the palace to give him the money, and told him, “Here in my hand is the minister’s salary, and here on the minister’s body is the minister’s head. Which do you want? I can give you either the minister’s head or the salary that he has received over the years.”
The man quickly said, “The minister’s salary, not his head!”