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Volume 25, Number 2March/April 1974

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Aesop of the Arabs

Written by Paul Lunde
Illustrated by Don Thompson

One of the more curious characters in the folklore of the Arabs is Luqman bin 'Ad, a member of that mysterious tribe descended from giants that once roamed southern Arabia and built the great dam of Marib. Luqman is mentioned in the Koran as "one to whom Allah brought wisdom." Then, as now, wise men were a rare commodity and medieval commentators and historians worked hard at finding out all they could about the enigmatic Luqman bin 'Ad. Opinion was sharply divided between those who thought that he was a prophet and those that maintained that he was an Abyssinian serf whom Allah rewarded for his faith by giving him wisdom and a long life in which to accumulate

So many wise saws were ascribed to Luqman that Wahb bin Munabbih, who fathered a great many traditions of his own, claimed that he personally had read a book of wisdom of Luqman containing more than ten thousand chapters. Luqman apparently lived long enough to accumulate that much wisdom. According to tradition, he lived as long as seven vultures, which means, since the average vulture has a lifespan of 80 years, that Luqman achieved the considerable age of 560. Luqman named his last vulture "Lubad," an old word meaning eternity, and installed him in comfort on top of a jebel. Luqman lived at the bottom. When he calculated that his time was up, he climbed to the top of the jebel, and he and Lubad died at the same instant.

To the very end Luqman's powers were undiminished. Someone asked one of his servant girls how Luqman's eyesight was now that he was so old. "Not so good," replied the girl. "The other day he was watching a couple of ants on the ceiling and he could barely distinguish between the tracks of the female and the male."

Before his death, Luqman passed on his wisdom to his son in the form of a last will and testament. Various versions of this survive. In all of them the wisdom, like all of the so-called wisdom of the East, is eminently practical. Way in advance of Watergate, for example, Luqman offered some advice to a ruler's aides. "If you should hear something at the door of the ruler's chamber, forget it. Don't tell it to either your friends or your enemies, lest it get back to you and you get burnt!" "Don't repeat everything you hear and don't talk about everything you see." "Don't reveal state secrets and don't classify things that are common knowledge." (sic!)

But he did not restrict himself to politics. Among his sayings, was advice about: women ("Watch out for pretty women who wear heavy makeup—they will end up spending everything you have."), loudmouths ("Talk in a low voice; if loud voices could get things done, asses would be building houses every day."); class differences ("Remember that when people see a rich man eating a snake, they say it is for medicinal reasons; when they see a poor man doing the same, they say it is because he is hungry."); losers ("It is better to be beaten by a wise man than praised by a fool."); loquacity ("It is better to stumble with your feet than to stumble with your tongue."); poverty ("It is better to be dead than poor."); planning ("A bird in the hand is better than a thousand flying about the sky."); reputations ("Remember a good reputation is better than physical beauty, for a good reputation lasts, but beauty passes."); and urban violence ("Don't walk the streets after sundown without a good sword.")

Not all of Luqman's advice to his son is contained in his testament. Sayings of Luqman are scattered through the works of Arab writers of all ages. Sometimes they are classified according to subject matter. We have, for instance, a set of admonitions to Luqman's son before he set off on a journey.

Luqman's son, whose name was either Mathan, Nathan, Baran or Tharan, depending on whose authority you are willing to accept, must have been most heartily sick of all this well-intentioned advice. And in any case he ignored it. It is historically attested to that after his father's death he gave wild parties, chased pretty girls with heavy makeup and was bankrupt within a year.

One of Luqman's chief interests was tourism, on which subject he had an endless fund of advice: "When you travel, don't fall asleep on your camel, or you'll irritate its back. When you make camp where there is plenty of pasturage, feed and water your camel before yourself. If you are a long way from any habitation when night falls, don't make camp in the middle of the trail or you'll have trouble with snakes and wild animals. Choose the best campsite you can, with plenty of fodder and a soft place to sleep. Greet your campsite when you arrive and bid it goodby when you leave, for every spot on the face of the earth has its own guardian angels. Don't raise your voice in raucous song as you ride along. Make sure you have your sword and bow and all your weapons, as well as a pair of sandals and a turban. Be sure to take along a needle and thread and a medicine chest in case you or one of your companions should fall ill. Be good company to your traveling companions and share your provisions generously. If they speak to you, answer back. If they ask for help, give it. Listen to those who are older than you. If you get lost, dismount and make camp. Only believe what you see with your own eyes."

Luqman, ever practical, also had old-fashioned ideas about child discipline. One of his most famous sayings is: "A father's blows upon his son's back are like manure upon a field." With a son like Mathan, Nathan, Baran, or Tharan, or whatever his name was, such sentiments are not surprising.

Most of Luqman's advice is about real people in a real world. There are few high moral sentiments contained in any of the above examples. The kind of wisdom that has always been appreciated in the East is the kind that enables a man to survive in a hostile world. Further examples can be adduced. For instance: "I have often regretted things I've said, but I've never regretted keeping my mouth shut." Or: "Eat the best food and sleep on a firm mattress."

One interesting and revealing anecdote is related by the great historian at-Tabari. One day while Luqman was sitting at a soirée talking with important people a man came up to him and said:

"Aren't you the guy that used to herd sheep with me?"

"Yes," replied Luqman.

"Well how in the world did you end up here, hobnobbing with professors?"

"By telling the truth and keeping quiet about things that don't concern me," answered Luqman.

Perhaps the most famous story told about Luqman is this one. Luqman, while he was still a serf, was summoned by his master and ordered to slaughter a sheep. He did so, and his master said, "Now give me the best part of it." So Luqman removed the tongue and the heart and prepared them for his master's supper. The next evening he was again summoned by his master and ordered to slaughter a sheep. He did so, and his master commanded, "Now give me the worst parts." Again Luqman prepared the heart and tongue of the sheep for his master's supper. His master grew angry and said, "When I ordered you to prepare the best parts of the sheep for me, you gave me the tongue and heart, and now when I order you to give me the worst parts of the sheep you again serve me the tongue and hear!" Luqman responded: "There is nothing better than them when they are good, and nothing worse when they are bad."

If this last story sounds familiar, it should. The same story is told about Aesop by the Greeks. Both Aesop and Luqman are described as having originally been Abyssinian and ugly. The story about Luqman and the seven vultures seems to be purely Arab, but both Aesop and Luqman are credited with having composed animal fables. In Arabic literature, 49 animal fables are attributed to Luqman, all but two identical to fables in the collection of Aesop. It is obvious that either the Greek fables are translations from the Arabic or that the Arabic fables, are translations from the Greek.

The latter alternative is the more likely, as the Aesopian fables are older than their Arabic counterparts, but it is perfectly possible that the animal fable was originally an oriental literary genre and that both Aesop and Luqman adapted it from the same Babylonian source. It says much for the basic identity of Classical and Islamic culture that the story of the tortoise and the hare, the wily fox, the proud but rather stupid lion are equally at home in Greek and Arabic. No matter how far Eastern and Western cultures have subsequently diverged they both have their roots in a common East-Mediterranean culture of great antiquity.

In fact, the Greeks' Life of Aesop, a late work by the Byzantine litterateur Planudes, is in reality a version of the Arabic, and earlier the Aramaic, Life of Ahiqar. Ahiqar had a son, who in Arabic is called either Mathan, Nathan, Baran, or Tharan, who paid no attention to the wise adages of his father, and as a consequence, after holding wild parties in his father's house, chasing the serving girls (presumably wearing heavy makeup) and ultimately selling state secrets to the Pharaoh, was ordered flayed. This punishment took place to the accompaniment of sage counsel couched in the form of animal fables and some of these fables later turn up in the collections attributed to Luqman and Aesop. Even at the end, the son of Luqman, or Aesop, or Ahiqar, had to put up with well-meant admonitions. They were probably harder to bear than the flaying.

Paul Lunde, a student of Arab literature, freelances from Rome.

This article appeared on pages 2-3 of the March/April 1974 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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