Be The Phantom Of A Vision: The Wisdom Of Ibn Munir


In medieval times there was a Syrian poet known for his acrid wisdom in verse, as well as for his distaste for dealing with nonsense.  Time and convenience has mercifully shortened his lengthy name (which we will not trouble the reader with here) to Ibn Munir al-Tarabolusi, or more commonly Ibn Munir.

He was born at Tripoli in Lebanon in 1080 and, after receiving a good education, settled in Damascus.  There he quickly landed a reputation for penning biting satires against various judges and political figures.  This did nothing, of course, to help him win influence in high places.  According to his biographer Ibn Khallikan, the son of the atabeg (local governor) of Damascus even had Ibn Munir imprisoned for a time.[1]


Gradually a philosophy took shape, and it was one based on an uncompromising self-reliance.  One of his verses (qasidas) distills his independent world-view in nearly perfect form.  For me it is just about the most effective summary of self-reliance ever put into verse.  Consider these lines[2]:

When a man of noble mind perceives that he is neglected, his resolution should be to depart for another land.

Thus the moon, when waned away, strives to attain to its full, and succeeds by changing its place.

Shame on your wisdom if you consent to drink of a troubled source when the bounty of God fills the very deserts.

During the course of your life, you sat in listless idleness and rivaled your camels in indolence; why not take them, and pry into the secrets of the desert?

Depart and you shall gain luster, like the sword which, when drawn, shows on each side of its blade the ornaments which were hidden by the scabbard.

When life forsakes the body, count it not death; the only death is to live in humiliation.

Devote your life to the deserts, not to poverty!  As long as God permits you to live, let it suffice you to deserve his favor.

Despise the vileness of Fortune’s gifts, when they draw near to you, remain not in inglorious ease, but be as the Phantom of a Vision which appears and departs.

Fly, even during the noontide fires, from those on whom you rained honey, and who reaped for you colocynth.[3]

Fly the deceitful wretch in whose heart the plantations of friendship are badly rooted, and who, if you show him sincerity, will misinterpret your conduct.

Ah, how well I know the world and its people!  With them it is a crime for merit to be perfect.  They are formed in Nature’s basest mold:  the best of them, if I say a word, will repeat it; and if I keep silence, will report to others what I never said.

When Fortune thinks to cast me down, my haughty spirit bears me up even to the stars.  I impress upon my mind the discourse of grave events, though it be darkly uttered; I tend my camels, but I fatigue them also on the failure of vegetation.

The declaration which I make is plain and clear as the light of morning; then follows a firm resolution which executes my will, as the edge of the sword slays the victim which it encounters.

What Ibn Munir here is saying is that if we feel neglected and unappreciated, it is our responsibility to make for greener pastures elsewhere.  Some people will misinterpret your kindness for weakness.  Some will denigrate your contributions or achievements.  You may feel as if you are casting your pearls before swine.  The worst fate for a man is to live in humiliation among people who denigrate him.  We should act like the Phantom of a Vision, an airborne spirit, who knows when to move on.  If we befriend people and get nothing in return, we should avoid those people.  And no matter what, we should not be discouraged by the arrows that Fortune shoots at us.

We know that he lived life on his own terms, and never chased notoriety or publicity as did many of poetically inferior contemporaries.  He apparently died in Damascus in 1152 and was taken to Aleppo for burial; his tomb was said to be near a hill outside the city called Mount Jaushan.  Yet even in death he was unrelenting, and not without a mischievous sense of humor.  On his tomb, we are told, were inscribed these words:

Let him who visits my tomb be assured that he shall meet with what I have met with.

May God have mercy on him who visits me here and says to me:  ‘May God have mercy on you!’


[1]  Atabeg is word of Turkish origin.  It signifies a local governor appointed by the caliph.

[2]  Trans. by William M. De Slane, and edited for clarity.

[3]  A bitter gourd commonly found in the  Mediterranean.


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