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Volume 20, Number 1January/February 1969

In This Issue

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The Cream Of Wisdom

While other nations were still coining phrases, the Arabs were compiling them.

Written by Fuad Rayess
Photographed by Burnett H. Moody
Additional photographs by Ahmad Montakh

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

Never will God suffer the reward to be lost, of those who do right.

—the Koran, Yusuf 90

God is with those who patiently persevere.

—the Koran, Anfal 46

Man can have nothing but what he strives for.

—the Koran, an-Najm 39

The remedy of time is patience.

Work for your future as if you are going to live forever, for your afterlife as if you are going to die tomorrow.

Pay trust to whoever trusts you and do not betray who betrays you.

—Conversations, Abu Daud and at-Tirmizi

Charity makes no decrease in property.

—Conversations, Muslim

Surely the worst of the evils are the evils of the learned, and surely the best of good is the good of the learned.

—Conversations, ad-Darimi

The worst of men in God's view on resurrection day is the learned who doesn't benefit others with his learning.

—Conversations, ad-Darimi

Feed the hungry, visit the sick and free the captive.

—Conversations, al-Bukhari

God is not kind to those who are not kind to others.

—Conversations, by consensus

Have mercy on those in the world, and those who are in heaven will have mercy on you.

—Conversations, Abu Daud and at-Tirmizi

He who is devoid of kindness is devoid of grace.

—Conversations, Muslim

Learning is a treasury whose keys are queries.

—Conversations, Abu Nairn

The dearest to me are those of best character.

—Conversations, al-Bukhari

He who does not shield himself from vilification receives it.

—Abi Sulma

In seeking honey expect the stings of bees.


Ride the tributaries to reach the sea.


A drowning man cares not about getting wet.


                                            "...the  everyday experiences of ordinary people everywhere."




Much ado about nothing.


I hear noise but see no grinding


Easy come, easy go


What comes with ease goes with ease.


One is known by the company he keeps


Send your son to the marketplace and see with whom he associates.


Man proposes but God disposes


Man plans and God manages.


Necessity is the mother of invention.


Need brings ways.


A friend in need is a friend indeed.


A friend is known when needed.


A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.


A bird in the hand is better than ten on a tree.


The absent are always in the wrong.


The absent may have an excuse.


The love of money and the love of learning rarely meet.


A seeker of knowledge and a seeker of money never meet.


Appetite furnishes the best sauce.


Hunger is the best cook.


Too many cooks spoil the broth.


Too many cooks burns the food.


Save something for the rainy day.


Save your white coin for your black day.


Familiarity breeds contempt.


Repetitive visits cause boredom.


Let the punishment fit the crime.


Rewards fit deeds.


United we stand, divided we fall


One hand does not clap.


Love is blind.


Love is blind.


One must eat to live, and not live to eat.


We as people eat to live and not live to eat..


Hope springs eternal breast.


How tight can life be without the space of hope?


Time is money.


Time is gold.


Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.


Sleep early and wake up early and see how healthy you will be.


God helps them that help themselves


God helps his subjects so long as they help one another.


As ye sow so shall ye reap,


Who works achieves and who sows reaps.


Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.


Never postpone today's work till tomorrow.


There is nothing so powerful as truth.


Truth is a haven.


Experience is the best teacher.


Ask a man of experience rather than a doctor.

This article appeared on pages 22-25 of the January/February 1969 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1969 images.