John Wortabet.

Arabian wisdom : selections and translations from the Arabic online

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Produced by Al Haines


The Wisdom of the East Series
















"What doth the Lord require of thee, but to
do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly
with thy God!" - MICAH vi. 8.




The object of the editors of this series is a
very definite one. They desire above all
things that, in their humble way, these books
shall be the ambassadors of good-will and
understanding between East and West, the old world
of Thought, and the new of Action. In this
endeavour, and in their own sphere, they are but
followers of the highest example in the land.
They are confident that a deeper knowledge of
the great ideals and lofty philosophy of Oriental
thought may help to a revival of that true spirit
of Charity which neither despises nor fears the
nations of another creed and colour.




The wise sayings and proverbs of ancient and modern times, and in all
the languages I know or to which I had access in translations, have
always had a great attraction for me. Drawn from the experiences and
study of human life, they have been reduced by wise men to short, pithy
sentences, generally expressed in some quaint or striking form, for
conveying sound moral truths. They are intended to be maxims of life,
or rules of conduct, chiefly for the young, but may be read with
pleasure and profit by both young and old. It was with such an object
in view that the Editors of the _Wisdom of the East_ series have lately
issued a number of small books on this subject carefully translated by
competent specialists, and which have been highly appreciated by the
English press and public. Their chief desire, however, appears to be
"that these books shall be the ambassadors of good-will and
understanding between East and West," and also that "the great ideals
and lofty philosophy of Oriental thought may help to a revival of that
true spirit of Charity which neither despises nor fears the nations of
another creed and colour." (See Editorial Note.)

It was also from such motives, but long before I had seen these books,
that I have employed a part of my leisure hours in translating into
Arabic some of the best sayings of M. Aurelius, Shakespeare, Tennyson,
English and other proverbs, and, quite lately, selections from _The
Instruction of Ptah-Hotep_ and _Sadi's Scroll of Wisdom_. They were
published in the best Arabic magazines, and have been read by many
Christians, Moslems, and Jews in Egypt, Syria, and other countries; and
I have been told by some of these Oriental readers that they found in
them much matter for thought and instruction, while their views of the
community and bonds of human nature among all nations, and in all parts
of the world, have been broadened and enlarged.

The Arabic language is particularly rich in this kind of literature,
and its proverbs are often appropriately introduced in conversation,
letters, and books, and add much force to what is said or written.
Many are light and colloquial, and bring a smile or laughter to both
speaker and hearer; but many also are distinguished by their classical
form and the serious weighty ideas which they convey or inculcate. It
was easy, therefore, to find abundant material for this little book,
but it was somewhat difficult to make a wise selection, to classify the
different subjects under proper heads, and to translate Arabic idioms
into good English. Other difficulties were when the proverb in Arabic
is formed of two parts which assonate or rhyme, when the piquancy of a
short sentence depends so much on the quaintness of its expression,
when an untranslatable pun or play upon words is used, or when the
phrase is too elliptical or too Oriental in its reference to be easily
understood by English readers. The translation I have made is
generally literal, sometimes free, but always true to the original.
Some I have left in their Oriental form to show the Arabian bent of
thought and mode of life. The renderings from the Koran are all mine,
and I alone am responsible for them. All that I have tried to do was
for ordinary readers - and for them alone.

Many proverbs are common to all languages, and in them all - notably
among Semitic nations - there is often an exaggeration,[1] or a
one-sided view,[2] or a paradox,[3] which must be taken with some
latitude and with the natural limitations required by common sense. It
will also be observed that many Arabic proverbs have a close
resemblance to the Proverbs of Solomon, and often assume that
rhetorical form or parallelism in which Hebrew poetry abounds when the
same idea is repeated in other words, or where its positive and
negative sides are put into contrast. The following quotation, taken
from the eighth chapter of that book, may serve as an example of what
has just been said, and as an appropriate introduction to this little

"Doth not wisdom cry,
And understanding put forth her voice?
Unto you, O men, I call;
And my voice is to the sons of men.
For my mouth shall utter truth;
And wickedness is an abomination to my lips.
For whoso findeth me findeth life,
And shall obtain favour of the Lord.
But he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul:
All they that hate me love death."

[1] "A fool throws a stone into a well, and a thousand wise men cannot
get it out."

[2] "A man is safe when alone." "Paradise without human companions is
not worth living in."

[3] "Do no good, and you will meet with no evil."


In the name of God, who is abundant in mercy and compassion! Praise be
to God, the Lord of the universe, the most merciful and compassionate,
the Sovereign of the day of judgment. Thee alone we worship, and from
Thee alone we seek help. Guide us to the right path - the path of them
to whom Thou hast been gracious - not of them with whom Thou art angry,
nor of them who have gone astray. Amen.[1]

[1] This opening chapter of the Koran - very short as it is - contains
the fundamental principles of the whole book - the doctrine of God, His
infinite mercy, the immortality of the soul, the rewards and
punishments of the world to come, and the duty of prayer, and
thanksgiving, and adoration, and obedience. It is a fair specimen of
all that is best in the "Revealed Book" of the Moslems, and is as
frequently repeated by them as the Lord's Prayer is by Christians.


_Koran_. O ye who believe, repent unto God, for He loveth them who are
penitent. O ye who believe in me, who by much sin have done a great
wrong to themselves, despair not of the mercy of God, for He forgiveth
all sins. Verily He forgiveth and is merciful.

_Traditions_. Sorrow for sin is repentance. He who repents is like
him who has not sinned.

_Wise Sayings and Proverbs_. No intercession succeeds so effectually
as repentance.

The most truthful man is he who is true to his repentance.

Two sins only God does not forgive - worship of false gods and injury to


[2] The original Arabic is in verse.

O Thou who knowest every thought, and hearest every cry,
Who art the source of all that is, or ever shall be,
Who art the only hope in every trouble,
The only help in every plaint and every woe,
Whose treasures of bounty and word creative are one,
God of all good, hear my prayer!

One sole plea I have - my need of Thee;
But needing Thee my need is filled.
One only resource I have - to stand and knock;
And if unheard at Thy mercy-gate, to whom shall I go?

Whom shall I call, what Name shall I invoke,
If Thy needy servant shall in vain Thy bounty seek?
But far be it from Thee, God of grace, to refuse a sinner's cry.
Too good and gracious art Thou to send me thus away.

Contrite, I stand at Thy door,
Believing that contrite prayer availeth much with Thee.
Suppliant, I stretch forth my hands,
And with all my soul look up to Thee.
Save me, God, from every ill, and be Thy favour ever mine!


_Koran_. God forgiveth past sins; let men forgive and pardon. Forgive
freely. Forgiving others is the nearest thing to piety.

_Traditions_. He who forgiveth others, God forgiveth him.

Be merciful, and you will have mercy; forgive and you will be forgiven.

_Sayings and Proverbs_. Of all things God loveth best forgiveness when
one is able to inflict harm, and forbearance when one is angry.

The pleasure of forgiving is sweeter than the pleasure of revenge.

Forgiveness is perfect when the sin is not remembered.

The most wicked of men is he who accepts no apology, covers no sin, and
forgives no fault.

Small men transgress, great men forgive.

A noble man condones and pardons, and when by chance he finds out a
sin, he conceals it.

A man said to another who had spoken evil of him: "If what you have
said be true, may God forgive me; and if false, may He forgive you."


_Koran_. Those who worship the Merciful One are they who walk on the
earth gently, and who, when fools speak to them, say "Peace." (25, 64.)

_Traditions_. Be friendly to him who would be unfriendly to you, give
him who will not give you, and forbear with him who would do you harm.

Next to faith in God, the chief duty of man is to treat his fellow men
with gentleness and courtesy.

_Sayings and Proverbs_. Gentleness is one of the noblest traits in a
man's character.

A gentle man is a man of great beauty.

One of the surest evidences of gentleness is tenderness to fools.

The fierce anger of a foolish man is checked by gentleness as a fierce
fire is extinguished by water.

Gentleness is sometimes an humiliation, and he who is always forbearing
and patient may be trodden down by fools.

If you honour a vile man, you disgrace the code of honour.


Humility is that line of conduct which is a mean between overbearing
pride on the one hand and abject servility on the other, as economy is
the middle term between extravagance and avarice.

Humility is the crown of nobility, a ladder to honour, and a means of
procuring love and esteem.

He who humbleth himself, God lifteth him up.

When Abu-Bekr, "the righteous" (the first Khalif), was praised, he used
to say: "O God, Thou knowest me better than I know myself, and I know
myself better than they know me. Make me, I pray Thee, better than
they suppose; forgive me what they know not, and lay not to my account
what they say."

A wise man was once asked whether he knew of any good which is not
coveted, or any evil which deserves no mercy, and he said: "Yes, they
are humility and pride."

To despise a proud man is true humility.


True nobility lies in high character and refined manners, not in noble
birth or ancient pedigree.

A noble man is he who aims at noble ends - not he who glories in an
ancestry mouldering in the dust.

A noble man is noble though he come to want, and a base man is base
though he walks on pearls.

A lion is a lion though his claws be clipped, and a dog is a dog though
he wear a collar of gold.

He who disregards his own honour gets no good from an honourable

Learning and high principles take the place of noble birth, and cover
the shame of a low origin.

A branch tells of what stock it comes.


Son of man, if you have no self-respect, do what you will.

Men see no fault in one who respects himself.

If you fear not the consequences of an evil life, and have no sense of
shame, you are free to do what you will.

No, by God, life has no worth, and this world has no happiness to a man
who has lost his self-respect and abandons himself to shamelessness.

There is no good in a man who is not ashamed of men.

He who has a brazen face has a craven heart.

To be ashamed before God is to obey His commandments and to avoid what
He has forbidden; to be ashamed before men is to avoid all harm to
them; and to be ashamed before one's self is to be chaste and clean
when one is alone.

Be ashamed in your own sight more than in the sight of men.

He who does a thing in secret of which he would be ashamed if done
openly, has no respect for himself.

He who respects not himself can have no respect for others.

I shall not kiss a hand which deserves to be cut off.


A man is truly religious when he is truly good.

A good character is a great boon.

Kind words are the bonds of love.

A kind word is like an act of charity.

If you cannot help men with money, help them with a cheerful face and a
kindly bearing.

No man is entitled to consideration unless he has these three things,
or at least one of them: the fear of God to restrain him from evil,
forbearance with wicked men, and a good nature towards all.

There are cases where not kindness but severity is necessary.

Kindness increases the love of friends, and diminishes the hatred of

Be firm after you have been kind.

God loves the man who is tender-hearted.

An evil nature is a calamity from which there is no escape.

If you hear that a mountain has moved from its place believe it, but if
you hear that a man has changed his character do not believe it, for he
will act only according to his nature.

An inherited quality may be traced back to the seventh grandfather.

There are four points in a good character from which all other good
traits take their origin - prudence, courage, continence, and justice.

When a woman has had more than one husband in this life, she will, in
the future state, be free to be the wife of him whose character she
esteemed the most.


_Koran_. Do good unto others as God has done unto you.

Is the reward of kindness anything but kindness?

He who does a kindly act shall be recompensed tenfold.

Ye can never be righteous unless ye give away from that which ye love.

_Traditions_. The upper hand [which giveth] is better than the lower
hand [which taketh].

God's creatures are the objects of His care, and He loveth best that
man who is most helpful to them.

_Proverbs_. Do not be ashamed to give little, for it is less than
that, if you give nothing.

If you give, give freely, and if you strike, strike boldly.

He who soweth kindness shall reap thanks.

What a man does for God is never lost.

Be merciful to him who is beneath you, and you will have mercy from Him
who is above you.

The best kind of good is that which is done most speedily.

Inopportune kindness is injustice.

No true joy but in doing good and no true sorrow but in doing evil.

Cruelty to animals is forbidden by God.

A peacemaker gets two-thirds of the blows.


Generosity is to do a kindness before it is asked, and to pity and give
a man who asks.

A generous man is nigh unto God, nigh unto men, nigh unto paradise, far
from hell.

Overlook the faults of a generous man, for God helps him when he falls
and gives him when he is needy.

A man who doeth good does not fall, and if he fall he will find a

Be not ashamed to give little - to refuse is less.


He is unthankful to God who is unthankful to man.

He who is unthankful for little is unthankful for much.

God continues His favours to him who is grateful.

He who is ungrateful for the good he receives deserves that it should
be withdrawn from him.

Man can be thankful to God only so far as he does good to his fellow

If a man professes to thank God and his wealth decreases, his
thanksgiving must be vitiated by his neglect of the hungry and naked.

Be grateful to him who has done you good, and do good to him who is
grateful to you.

Gratitude takes three forms - a feeling in the heart, an expression in
words, and a giving in return.

The most worthless things on earth are these four - rain on a barren
soil, a lamp in sunshine, a beautiful woman given in marriage to a
blind man, and a good deed to one who is ungrateful.


To recompense good for good is a duty.

Neglect of recompense is contemptible.

If a man do you a favour recompense him, and if you are unable to do
so, pray for him.

The worst kind of recompense is to requite evil for good.

Reproach faults by kindness, and requite evil by good.

There is no glory in revenge.

Meet insult by insult, and honour by honour. Evil can be repelled only
by evil.

What you put into the pot you will take out in the ladle.

He who plays with a cat must bear its scratches.

He who lives in a house of glass should not throw stones at people.

Sins may lurk, but God deals heavy blows.


To carry a heavy rock to the summit of a mountain is easier than to
receive a kindness which is flaunted.

The bane of a generous action is to mention it.

It is better to refuse a kindness than to be reminded of it.

I would not accept the whole world if I were to suffer the humiliation
of being constantly reminded of the gift.

To bestow and flaunt a kindness, and to be stingy and refuse to do an
act of kindness, are equally bad.

When you do a kindness hide it, and when a kindness is done to you
proclaim it.

Do good, and throw it into the sea.


_Koran_. O God, increase my knowledge. Are they who know and they who
know not equal?

He who has been given wisdom has been given a great good.

What ye have been given of knowledge is only a small part.

Above a learned man there is one more learned.

_Traditions_. Learned men are trustees to whom God has confided

Stars are the beauty of the heavens, and learned men are the ornament
of a people.

Angels bend down their wings to a seeker of knowledge.

_Proverbs_. The rank of the learned is the highest of all ranks.

If learning does not give wealth it will give esteem.

Knowledge increaseth the honour of a nobleman, and bringeth men of low
degree into the houses of kings.

A seat of learning is a garden of heaven.

Forgetfulness is the bane of knowledge.

It is difficult for a man to know himself.

Knowledge is a lamp from which men light their candles.

A mind without education is like a brave man without arms.

Kings govern men, and learned men govern kings.

That day in which I have learned nothing, and in which I have added
nothing to my knowledge, is no part of my life.

He who seeks learning without study will attain his end when the raven
becomes grey with age.

To every noble horse a stumble, and to every learned man an error.

Knowledge does not save from error, nor wealth from trouble.

The owner of the house knows best what is in it.


All speculative research ends in perplexing uncertainty.

I sought in the great sea of theoretical learning a bottom on which to
stand - and found nothing but one wave dashing me against another.

After a lifetime of research and learning, I amassed nothing but such
phrases as: "It is said," or "They say."

O erring reason, I am sick of thee! I take a single step and thou
movest a whole mile away from me.

The object sought in abstruse study is either a truth which cannot be
known, or a vain thing which it is useless to know.


Most thoughts are wishes.

The thoughts of the wise are more trustworthy than the convictions of

Do not confuse opinions with certainties.

If you are doubtful of a thing let it alone.

Remove doubts by enquiry.

A thing that is heard is not like a thing that is seen.

Do not believe all that you hear.

It is not wise to be sure of a thing only because you think so.

Where there is much difference of opinion it is difficult to know the

To think well of others is a religious duty.

He who thinks well of others is a happy man.

He who has an evil thing in him thinks all men are like him.

If a man think well of you, make his thought true.

A poet says: "It was my habit to think well of others until experience
taught me otherwise."

Be well with God and fear nothing.

Most men think well of themselves, and this is self-delusion.


Reason is a light in the heart which distinguishes between truth and

A wise man sees with his heart what a fool does not see with his eyes.

Men should be judged according to their lights (reason).

A wise man is not he who considers how he may get out of an evil, but
he who sees that he does not fall into it.

Actions are judged by their endings. If you desire a thing, consider
its end.

A man cannot be wise without experience.

No wise man will be bitten twice from the same den.

No boon is so remunerative as reason.

Long experience is an addition to mind.

Consideration may take the place of experience.

A wise man is he who has been taught by experience.

One word is sufficient to the wise man.

A cheap offer makes a wise purchaser wary.

He who considers consequences will attain his object, and he who does
not carefully think on them, evil will be sure to overtake him.

Everything has need of reason, and reason has need of experience.

Mind and experience are like water and earth co-operating - neither of
which alone can bring forth a flower.

Reason and anxious thought are inseparable.

A wise man is never happy. (For in much wisdom is much grief, and he
that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. - ECCLES. i. 18.)


Ignorance is the greatest poverty.

Ignorance is death in life.

There is no evil so great as ignorance.

Folly is an incurable disease.

A foolish man is like an old garment, which if you patch it in one
place becomes rent in many other places.

It is just as allowable to blame a blind man for want of sight as to
blame a fool for his folly.

To bear the folly of a fool is indeed a great hardship.

The best way to treat a fool is to shun him.

The fool is an enemy to himself - how can he then be a friend to others?

An ignorant man is highly favoured, for he casts away the burden of
life, and does not vex his soul with thoughts of time and eternity.

The most effectual preacher to a man is himself. A man never turns
away from his passions unless the rebuke comes from himself to himself.


If you consult a wise man, his wisdom becomes yours.

Confide your secret to one only, and hear the counsel of a thousand.
(In the multitude of counsellors there is safety. PROV. xi. 14.)

A counsellor is a trusted man.

When men consult together, they are led by the wisest among them.

The knowledge of two is better than the knowledge of one. Two heads
are better than one.

Let your counsellor be one who fears God.

Consult a man of experience, for he gives you what has cost him much,
and for which you give nothing.

A man who is older than yourself by a day is more experienced than you
by a year.

Consult an older man and a younger, then decide for yourself.

The wisest may need the advice of others.

He who is wise, and consults others, is a whole man; he who has a wise
opinion of his own, and seeks no counsel from others, is half a man;

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Online LibraryJohn WortabetArabian wisdom : selections and translations from the Arabic → online text (page 1 of 3)