If proverbs are a sign of wisdom, the Arabs are wise indeed. Out of the wellsprings of their history they have accumulated an almost incomparable treasury of acute observation, perceptive comments and sage advice on all aspects of life.
The sources of Arab proverbs are numerous and old, some reaching back deep into history. As early as 1107, for example, Abu al-Qasim az-Zamakhshari completed a book of proverbs that were already old. He called it Al-Mustaqsa fi Atnthal al-Arab ("The Sought After Arabic Proverbs"), and included in its two volumes 3,461 proverbs, along with notes on their sources and their meanings. Compare this with the "Durham Proverbs" which are thought to be the earliest known collection of Anglo-Saxon sayings. They take up, according to the Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs, a mere "three leaves ... in the middle of an 11th-century hymnal."
Even earlier, a scholar named Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Maidani published a book containing 4,766 proverbs in alphabetical order. It was called Majma' al-Amthal ("A Collection of Proverbs"), and according to a note in the author's introduction it was based on 50 other books containing proverbs. While other nations were still coining phrases the Arabs were compiling them.
The richest source of Arabic proverbs, of course, is the Koran. There are few verses (ayah) that have not been used as proverbs and to this day they permeate conversation, literature, speeches and even legal decisions.
After the Koran the richest source is surely the Hadith, the public and private sayings of the Prophet which were handed down orally from generation to generation, then compiled and recorded in books. At one time it was estimated that about 600,000 had been attributed to the Prophet but when six traditionalists set themselves on the task of authenticating all to the Prophet, many could not be confirmed and were discredited. These men—al-Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Daud, Ibn Majah, at-Tirmizi and an-Nisai—singled out 212 individuals as the men and women most likely to have had access to the Prophet and his associates, and thus would have been able to quote him accurately. They also issued books, the most famous of which was Sahih al-Bukhari. This book, a collection of 7,275 authentic sayings of the Prophet, has been described by some Muslim jurists as "the most reliable book after the Book of God...."
Arabic literature and poetry have also been a rich source of classical proverbs. One of the most widely quoted poets is Zuhair ibn Abi Sulma, a pre-Islamic wise man who summed up the logic and wisdom of his time in beautiful verse which is still quoted after more than 1,300 years and who is said to have spent one full year in composing some of his poems. But the most quoted Arab poet is Abu at-Tayyib al-Mutanabbi, a prominent poet of the Abbasid era (750-1258). Like Shakespeare, he achieved a peak in his achievements unequaled by anyone since.
To Westerners, unfortunately, the subtlety, the cleverness of many Arab quotations is lost, sometimes because of un-familiarity with the background that is essential to comprehension, sometimes because the sayings, like some wines, simply don't travel. One such saying is "He returned with Hunain's slippers," meaning "He failed on his mission" or "He accomplished nothing."
Hunain, a cobbler, was annoyed one day by a tight-fisted Bedouin who bargained all day for a pair of slippers, then refused to buy them. Hunain, deciding to get back at him, rode out ahead of the Bedouin, placed one of the slippers on the road where the Bedouin was sure to pass and the other slipper further on.
When the Bedouin passed by and saw the first slipper he said to himself, "This is exactly like the one I wanted to buy from Hunain. It is too bad the other slipper is not with it." Seeing that he could make no use of it he left it in its place and moved on. Before long he reached the other slipper and decided to go back and get the first one too. He was in such a hurry, however, that he left his camel and gear behind, and Hunain took the camel and ran away leaving the Bedouin to return to his tribe with nothing but Hunain's slippers.
It's a simple story but many Westerners, looking for a clever twist, or a pointed moral, find it flat, whereas in Arabic it is delightful.
These stories, however, are in a minority. Most Arabic proverbs immediately ring a bell—suggesting maybe that proverbs are really no more than the cream of the everyday experiences of ordinary people everywhere. Or to put it another way, in their basic needs, hopes, fears, it seems the lives of common men are much the same everywhere.
Oddly, the variety and aptness of Arabic proverbs has had a clotting effect on Arabic writing. With so much traditional wisdom on hand there was little incentive for the writer to reach for fresh modes of expression. As late as 1959, for instance, new collections of proverbs were still being issued. One was Muhammad al-Abodi's collection of 1,000 proverbs from the Najd, the central area of Saudi Arabia. Another called Modern Lebanese Proverbs was a compilation of 4,248 colloquial proverbs collected in a single Lebanese village by Prof. Anis Frayha of the American University of Beirut.
In the last 20 years, however, the surge in literature has opened the path to the originality of thought and the freshness of expression that is vital to any language that is to thrive. Where else, after all, will new proverbs come from?
Fuad Rayess is the general supervisor of the Arabic Press and Publications Division of the Aramco Public Relations Department in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia