The Positive And Negative Power Of Humiliation


In our perpetual quest for mastery over ourselves and our environment, we are often reminded that life can deal us hardships.  The Chinese peasant has been wont to say that he must get used to “eating bitterness.” But what if there were a way to turn this to our advantage? What if there were a way to harness the power of humiliation, so to speak, and channel this negative energy into something good?

Humiliations for some people serve as impetus to higher achievement.  For others, they can undermine confidence and erode a positive outlook.  This truism is illustrated in the life and career of the Arabic grammarian Sibawayhi (c. 760-796).  He is considered the first, and some say the greatest, of the medieval scholars of the Arabic language.

When Arabic spread out over a wide geographic area after the seventh century, it came to be adopted by a large number of cultures and nations who had had no exposure to it.  There was a pressing need for a proper understanding of how to read texts, since Arabic—like other Semitic languages, such as Hebrew—is normally written without letters for vowels.  Proper care for the nuances of the classical language plays a large role in Arabic linguistics.

His full name was Abu Bishr Amr ibn Uthman ibn Qanbar, but this mouthful was mercifully shortened by the nickname of Sibawayhi.  He was an ethnic Persian, born in the city of Hamadan, and not an Arab; his father had been a convert to Islam.  Some historians say he was given the nickname “Sibawayhi” (which means “smell of apples” in Persian) because his breath had a pleasant odor.  His native language was Persian, and he always spoke Arabic with a heavy Persian accent.

This fact was later to play a significant role in his life, as we will see.

Sibawayhi’s original intention had been to study jurisprudence in Basra.  But a humiliating event occurred there that changed the course of his life.  We are told that he was conversing with a group of Arabs, and they began to make fun of his accent.  Angered and humiliated, he responded by telling them that “one day, I will teach you Arabic.”

So he switched the focus of his studies from law to grammar.  The humiliation that he had suffered at the hands of his peers spurred him on to greater achievement.  He eventually went on to produce the first compendium of Arabic linguistics, which tradition has simply given the name “the book” or الكتاب .

So Sibawayhi was able to turn his humiliation into something productive.  His compendium of grammar deals with a vast amount of linguistic detail:  verbal objects, infinitives, topics of sentences, cases and case endings, particles, broken plurals, morphology, syntax, and various recondite phonetic matters.   But it is also a book of literature, in the sense that it is filled with anecdotes and quotations from other authorities.

But, like so many things in life, what had been the source of his elevation also was a factor in his undoing.  While he permitted humiliation to motivate him to great effort, he allowed it to upset his serenity.  The story may be apocryphal, but we cannot be sure.

Around 793, at the court of the caliph in Baghdad, a rival grammarian named al-Kisa’i challenged Sibawayhi to a contest of knowledge involving an abstruse proposition in grammar.  The issue was the correct construction of the last few words of this sentence:

قالت العرب: قد كُنْتُ أَظُنُّ أنَّ الْعَقْرَبَ أَشَدُّ لَسْعَةَ من الزُّنْبُوْرِ فَإِذَا هُوَ هِيَ أو فَإِذَا هُوَ إِيَاهَا

I translate this sentence as:  “The Arabs say:  I used to think that a scorpion’s sting hurts more than a hornet’s, but they were the same.”


The question that al-Kisa’i put to Sibawayhi was this:  should the last three words of the sentence above (فَإِذَا هُوَ إِيَاهَا) be written as it is written above, or should it read: فَإذَا هُوَ هِيَ ?

Or, if we transliterate into English, should the last three words be “fa’idha huwwa iyaha” or “fa’idha huwwa hiyya?”  Or are both constructions correct?

Sibawayhi’s answer was that the first construction listed above was the only correct one.  When some Bedouin Arabs (who were considered the finest of native speakers) in the audience heard this, they contradicted Sibawayhi.  Tradition tells us, however, that they had actually been bribed by al-Kisa’i to contradict Sibawayhi, and that both formations are equally valid.

Regardless, Sibawayhi was again humiliated, and this time it embittered him.  For all his intellectual abilities and commanding mastery of the Arabic language, he had been unable to exert mastery over himself.  He left Baghdad for Persia, and died in Shiraz around 796, apparently of some ailment.  His tomb can still be seen in Shiraz today.

Humiliations can both make us, or break us.  It is up to us to decide which of these outcomes will have the most lasting effect on our consciences.  With proper control of the passions and emotions, it is possible to turn the negative experience of humiliation into something that is a benefit.


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