The origins of Ras Al Ghoul in Egyptian Folklore
Quite a lot of people heard of a character called Ra’s al Ghul. In the DC universe, and films based on DC publications, Ra’s al Ghul is a major antagonist, frequently clashing with Batman. He leads several groups, the most prominent being his “League of Assassins”. But in fact, the DC villain was not the first character to bear the name. Another character bearing the name appears centuries earlier, in Egyptian folklore. A man named Hassan Ras Al Ghoul, appears as the father of an Egyptian folkloric character known as Ali The Quicksilver, alternately known as Ali The Mercury, Mercury Ali, or Quicksilver Ali.
As you can probably guess from the name, Quicksilver Ali was so named because he was very difficult to catch. The most popular versions of the tale begin with his birth to Hassan Ras Al Ghoul. Hassan Ras Al Ghoul is alternately named as the Commander of the Gendarmerie or Police for Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus, or Cairo, depending on the version of the tale. The tale itself is variously ascribed to Mameluke Egypt, Ottoman Egypt, or Abbasid Egypt. Apparently a righteous man, he is the victim of a conspiracy which has him eventually killed by a rival official, frequently named Sunqur Al Kalby. Sometimes refered to as Salah Al Kalby. The word “Al Kalby” means pertaining to dogs, and may be translated as “The Canid” or “The Canine”.
After the murder of his father, Hassan Ras Al Ghoul, Ali is raised by his mother Fatma, sometimes identified as Fatema the Lioness. Her father is sometimes named as “Judge/Magistrate of the Fayoum”. In the versions where Ras Al Ghoul dies outside of Egypt, Fatma is described as taking her and Hassan’s son and fleeing back to Egypt, their original home. Ali grows up intelligent and cunning, often surviving dangerous situations on his wits and quick thinking (and moving). Bent on avenging his family, reclaiming his fortune, and protecting the people from corruption, Ali begins challenging the corrupt officials ruling Egypt. Forming his own alliances and relying on his father’s old allies, his network eventually consolidates into a band of outlaws under his leadership. The Slicers.
The Slicers is a translated name. It could also translate as The Splitters. The name in Arabic is “Al Shottar”. It is less ominous than it sounds. Slicers were a brand of pick pockets, renowned for their stealth in slicing people’s pockets to steal whatever then falls out, or directly slicing their purses to steal the coins which tumble down. Their abilities were so legendary, the usage of their name in modern Egyptian Arabic parlance has come to mean “The Clever Ones”. A class’s top academic performers are now called its “slicers”. A clever doctor is a “sha-ter”. A slicer. While the original slicers were not assassins, they employed many of the same skill sets. Like Ra’s Al Ghul’s League of Assassins from the DC-based content, Ali’s Slicers were masters of agility, stealth and escape, wanted by the authorities and constantly hunted. Quicksilver Ali was also literally titled “The Sliciest of The Slicers” which is somewhat comical in English as a literal translation, but makes perfect sense in Egyptian Arabic. Basically, it means he was the most gifted in that particular skillset.
A few versions of the story have the original Ras Al Ghoul, Hassan, as the head of a more combative band of outlaws rather than a gendarmerie commander. They were a brand of highwaymen known as “stoppers” or “impeders”. Their functions varied from standard highway robbery, to illegal toll collection, and included contracting out their skills to local law enforcement for legitimate toll collection as well as “stopping” or “impeding” unsanctioned caravans, which may have been associated with smuggling.
Most versions agree that after Hassan Ras Al Ghoul was killed, his son, Ali Quicksilver eventually formed and led his band of slicers, who constantly targeted the country’s corrupt officials along with their henchmen and wealthy mercantile allies. Eventually, all versions agree that Ali Mercury cleverly completes his revenge against Sunqur the Canid, the corrupt official who conspired against his father. This revenge, depending on the version, can take any form, from personal confrontation to entrapment with other officials.
Quicksilver and his men often distributed much of their booty and material gains amongst the poor. In this sense, Ali The Quicksilver and his Slicers bear resemblance to Robin Hood and his Merry Men, in their struggle against the Sherriff of Nottingham. The themes Ali Quicksilver has in common with Robin Hood are that they are both often depicted as descended from men of note, who were betrayed and killed. Both of their family names were supposedly wrongfully disgraced. Both of them formed bands of outlaws to resist and cleverly outwit the oppression of corrupt establishments, personified by persistent antagonists; law-enforcement officials serving as the primary villains in most of their stories. Both of them become celebrated as folk heroes who steal from the rich and give to the poor.
It would appear that the tale of a displaced heir, struggling to right his family’s wrongs and eventually, championing all of the poorer populace, is a universal theme in the lives of our collective cultures. Or at least a common one. Though some people have asserted the historicity of Ali Quicksilver, and there have been no insistent denials of it, I cannot speak for its truth or lack thereof. Robin Hood, as well, appears to be an amalgamation of several popular outlaws who inhabited the British isles over centuries, though at least those characters all existed individually. But the theme…Of the displaced heir taking to breaking the law to achieve some recompense, is not an untrue one.
An undisputedly historic Egyptian outlaw is a man known as “Adham El Sharkawy”, from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Tales of resistance against the British occupation of Egypt, and of stealing from the rich and giving the poor, abound about Adham. But the most interesting thing, is a comment on the margin of history, almost never mentioned in the oral tradition of his tale. Adham’s paternal uncle, Abd El Majeed, was the local mayor, and a local feudal lord holding a title from the Egyptian monarchy. This local notable was said to have taken the stand against his nephew in court, and further, when his nephew eluded capture, is said to have fully co-operated with the Egyptian and British authorities to facilitate his nephew’s capture. One could only guess at his uncle’s motivations. But the theme of the displaced heir rears its head once again.
Ultimately, I cannot say to what extent the creators of the DC character “Ra’s al Ghul” and his “League of Assassins”, based their creations on the folkloric tales of “Hassan Ras Al Ghoul” and his band of highwaymen, or on Hassan’s son, Ali Mercury and his band of pickpockets. I don’t know if the creators ever went to Egypt. Or picked up an English book about Egyptian folklore. Or heard a highly filtered tale through a few thousand intermediates. But I can say the oral tradition of a man named Ras Al Ghoul has existed in Egyptian folklore for centuries, and his first written mention comes in 1880, during late 19th century efforts to record Egyptian folklore. The DC villain however, was only published in 1971. And I can say that Ali Quicksilver… Is Egypt’s own Robin Hood.