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Arabian Wisdom, by John Wortabet, [1913], at

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What is Righteousness?

"Righteousness is not that ye turn your faces [in prayer] to the east or west; but righteousness is to him who believeth in God and the Last Day, and Angels, and Revealed Books, and Prophets; who giveth cheerfully from his substance to kinsmen, orphans, the needy, the wayfarer, and to them that ask; who freeth the prisoner and the slave; who offereth prayers at their appointed times, and giveth the ordained alms; to them who fulfil the covenants to which they have bound themselves, and who are patient in times of distress, and pain, and struggle: these are they who are sincere [in religion], and who fear to do evil (Koran 2, 172)."

This fine passage from the Koran is considered by Moslem commentators as the most comprehensive statement of the duties of man: "Sound faith, a good social life, and right culture of the soul" (El-Beidaway).

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Instructions of Ali Ibn-abi Talib, the first Khalif to his son—"My son, fear God both secretly and openly; speak the truth, whether you be calm or angry; be economical, whether you be poor or rich; be just to friend and foe; be resigned alike in times of adversity and prosperity. My son, he who sees his own faults has no time to see the faults of others; he who is satisfied with the allotments of Providence does not regret the past; he who unsheaths the sword of aggression will be killed by it; he who digs a pit for his brother will fall into it; he who forgets his own sin makes much of the sin of another; he who takes to evil ways will be despised; he who commits excesses will be known to do them; he who associates with the base will be subject to constant suspicion; he who remembers death will be content with little in this world; he who boasts of his sins before men, God will bring him to shame."

The Experiences of an Old Man

"I have heard many sermons and had many counsels, but I have heard no preacher so effective as my grey hairs, and no counsellor so effectual as the voice of my own conscience. I have eaten the most choice food, and drunk the best kinds of wine, and enjoyed the love of the most beautiful women; but I found no pleasure so great as that

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of sound health. I have swallowed the bitterest food and drink, but I found nothing so bitter as poverty. I have worked at iron and carried heavy weights, but I found no burden so heavy as that of debt. I have sought wealth in all its forms, but found no riches so great as those of contentment."

Eight Men who deserve to be slapped on the Face

He who despises a man of power; he who enters a house uninvited and unwelcomed; he who gives orders in a house not his own; he who takes a seat above his position; he who speaks to one who does not listen to him; he who intrudes on the conversation of others; he who seeks favours from the ungenerous; and he who expects love from his enemies.


The following story is related by Arabian authors of Ma’an Ibn-Zaidah, who, from a humble origin, rose to be Governor of Irak. The story is probably not altogether historical, but it shows the high ideal of Arab moralists as regards forbearance and gentleness.

An Arab of the desert, who had heard much

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of the great gentleness of Ibn-Zaidah, came one day to try him. Entering abruptly into his presence he addressed him thus (in verse):

"Rememberest thou when thy bed-covering was a sheepskin and thy sandals made of camel-skin?"

Ma’an    answers (in prose): Yes, I remember, and I have not forgotten it.

The Arab.    Praise be to God, who hath given thee a great rule, and taught thee how to sit on a throne!

Ma’an.    Yes, praise to Him in every condition of life!

Arab.    Never shall I greet Ma’an as an emir should be greeted!

Ma’an.    Greeting is an ordinance among Arabs in which you are free to take what form you like.

Arab.    An Emir who eats sweet pastry in secret, and entertains his guest with barley bread!

Ma’an.    The food is our own: we eat what we like and give others what we like.

Arab.    I shall leave a land in which thou dwellest, and depart, though the hand of Fortune is hard upon me.

Ma’an.    Brother Arab, if thou stay, thou art welcome; and if thou depart, peace go with thee.

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Arab.    Son of shame, give me something for my journey, for I have decided to go.

Ma’an (to his treasurer):    Give him a thousand pieces of money.

Arab.    Noble prince, I have heard much of thy great forbearance, and came only to try thee. Thy gentleness is indeed very great, and has no like among men. I pray God that thy life may be long, and thy forbearance be ever a noble example to which men may look up!

Truthfulness to Trust

The following historical incident is related by Arab authors as the highest example of faithfulness to trust. Al-Samau’al (Samuel) was the emir of a Jewish tribe in Southern Arabia, shortly before the time of Mohammed. A friend of his, before setting out on a journey, left with him some very fine mailed armour. This friend was killed in a battle, and one of the kings of Syria demanded the arms. Al-Samau’al refused to give them up except to the rightful heir, and the king laid siege to him in one of his fortresses. One day his son fell into the hands of the enemy, and the king threatened to kill him if the arms were not given up. Again he refused, and from the turrets of the castle saw his son put to death. The siege was soon after raised, and the arms were delivered to the heirs of his friend.

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Truthfulness to Pledge

The terms of surrender at the capture of Jerusalem by Saladin, in 1187, were that the Crusaders should retire with their goods from that city to one of the garrisoned ports which were held by the Franks, on the payment of ten pieces of gold for each man. As they were filing out of the city, and handing in their ransom-money, Saladin and his generals looked on, watching the proceedings. The patriarch's turn came, and he was followed by a number of mules laden with much treasure. Saladin made no sign, but his generals said: "Sire, the conditions of surrender were for private property, not for such treasures of money, which we urgently need for carrying on the war." To this appeal he replied: "No, I have pledged my word, and for the ten pieces of gold agreed upon he shall be free."

But just as he was so strictly truthful to his word, he was equally severe in exacting the same truthfulness from his foes. Thus after the great battle of Hittin, when the Crusading army was utterly crushed, a large number of prisoners fell into his hands, including the King of Jerusalem and Count Raymond de Chatillon, Governor of Kerak, to the east of the Jordan. The count was a bad, dishonourable man, and had (not long before) shamelessly violated an armistice, and fallen on a defenceless Moslem caravan

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which was passing through his province, killing the men and seizing their property. When Saladin heard of this base breach of the laws of war he was furious, and vowed that if this perfidious prince should ever fall into his power, he would kill him with his own hand; and now the count was his prisoner. The day of battle, in the month of August, had been very hot, and the Crusaders, with their heavy coats of mail, and without a drop of water to drink, had suffered terribly from thirst. The tents of Saladin were pitched near the Lake of Tiberias, and when the king and the count were brought in, the king asked for a drink of water—which Saladin at once ordered. A large goblet of iced water was handed to him, and after quenching his thirst he passed the cup to the count. Saladin looked on, but said nothing until the count had finished drinking, and he then said to him: "I gave no orders for drink for you; if I had, your life would have been safe by our laws of hospitality. But you are a bad, faithless man, who broke the terms of our truce, and you shall now suffer the death which you deserve," and with one stroke of his scimitar he cut off his head. He then sent for the Knights of St. John, of whom there were about a thousand prisoners, and said to them: "So far as you have been brave warriors, and cost the Moslems many a man, I have nothing to say; but you have not

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been fair and honourable in our wars, nor true to your engagements, and I now offer you the option of Islam or death." To a man they all chose death in preference to adopting a faith which they hated; and so they were led to the shores of the lake and there beheaded.

More than seven hundred years after these tragic events, William II., the present Emperor of Germany, who is a descendant of the Crusading Princes, and a Knight of the Brandenburg branch of the order of St. John, came to Damascus in 1898; and one of the first things he did there was to visit the tomb of Saladin, and lay on it a wreath of flowers. It was a generous and beautiful and well-deserved tribute to the memory of a truly great man, from whom the Christian nations of his times learned much of their chivalry and truthfulness to their pledged word.

A Thankful Old Man

Two old men, who had been friends in early youth, met after an interval of many years. A cordial greeting ensued, and then one of them asked the other:   "How old are you now?"   He said:   "Thank God, I am in good health."   "Are you well-off in worldly goods?"   "Thank God, I am in debt to no man."   "Have you any special trouble of mind?"   "Thank God, I have no young children."   "Have you

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any enemies?"   "Thank God, I have no near relations."

The Three Sorts of Happy Men

In two verses of poetry, Al-Mutanabbi, one of the greatest Arabian poets and philosophers, reduces the number of happy men to three classes. They have been paraphrased and put into English verse by a friend, as follows:

To three life seems a summer sky:
The first who has no mind to know
The heights and depths of life below,
Nor ever asks the reason why.

The second he to whom life's sum
Is self at ease; who never lets
The past disturb with dark regrets,
Nor hopes and fears from days to come.

The third who, led by fancies crude,
In scorn of truth, deceived at heart,
Makes fruitless dreams his better part,
And hollow hopes the highest good.

Cynical Views of Life

Abu’l-Ala was another great poet-philosopher. He lost his sight from small-pox early in life,

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was a cynic and pessimist, and may have often been copied by Omar Khayyam. He refers to his affliction and to the fact that he lived and died an unmarried man (so as to have no children) in a well-known verse:

"Here am I—wronged by my father
Who gave me birth—while I have done
     wrong to no one."

Some of his poetry has been put into English quatrains by Ameen F. Rihany, in imitation of Omar Khayyam's Rubayiat, and the following, from the Quatrains of Abu’l-Ala, are a few striking examples:

"What boots it, in my creed, that man should moan
In Sorrow's Night, or sing in Pleasure's Dawn?
In vain the doves all coo on yonder branch,
In vain one sings or sobs: lo! he is gone.

So solemnly the Funeral passes by!
The march of Triumph, under this same sky,
Trails in its course—both vanish into Night:
To me are one, the Sob, the Joyous Cry.

Many a grave embraces friend and foe,
And grins in scorn at this most sorry show;
A multitude of corses passed therein—
Alas! Time almost reaps e’er he doth sow!

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How oft around the Well my Soul would grope
Athirst; but to! my Pail was without Rope:
I cried for Water, and the deep, dark Well
Echoed my wailing cry, but not my hope.

The door of What-May-Be none can unlock,
But we can knock and guess, and guess and knock:
Night sets her glittering sail, and glides along,
Ship-like; but where, O Night-ship, is thy dock?

Oh, when will Fate come forth with his decree,
That I might clasp the cool clay, and be free?
My Soul and Body, wedded for a while,
Are sick, and would that separation be.

If miracles were wrought in bygone years,
Why not to-day, why not to-day, O seers?
This Leprous Age most needs a healing hand,
Oh, why not heed his cries, and dry his tears?"

Miscellaneous Proverbs

He who treats you as he treats himself does you no injustice.

He who lives on expectations dies in poverty.

Three things are no disgrace to man—to serve his guest, to serve his horse, and to serve in his own house.

Extremes are a mistake—a middle course is the best.

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When the cooks are many the food is spoiled. When a ship has two captains it will sink.

Tie the ass where his owner wants.

Be a slave to truth—the slave to truth is a freeman.

No bravery in war can withstand overwhelming numbers.

If God gives you, give you to others.

A horseman has ever an open grave before him.

Confide not in a friend until you have tried him, and fight no enemy until you have sufficient power.

A prudent man is right though he perisheth, and a reckless man is wrong though he cometh out safely.

Trust not in present prosperity, for it is a departing guest.

Reserve the white coin for the black day.

If it be in your power to do harm to your enemy—do it not, but forgive him and win his thanks.

The eye cannot contend with pointed steel.

Be cautious even where you are most sure.

Poverty is a chain which restrains men from doing much evil.

If you would know what a man hath, look not to what he gains but to what he spends.

Nothing can be concealed except that which is not.

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The best friend is he who changeth not with the changes of time.

Every rule has exceptions.

The most unjust man to himself is he who humbles himself to one who hates him, and he who praises one whom he does not know.

When you do a kindness, make a small thing of it, though it be a great; and when you receive a kindness, make much of it, though it be small.

Idle hands are unclean.

This world is honey mixed with poison—a joy inseparable from sorrow.

If you are ignorant, inquire;   if you stray, return;   if you do wrong, repent;   and if you are angry, restrain yourself.

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