On Meetings And Separations: The Wisdom Of Two Scholars Of Al-Andalus

We have paid a price for the media age.  Yes, it is true that we have access to huge volumes of information (or mindless trash, depending on your perspective); but the average person is now so deluged with tsunamis of inanity that it is a full-time responsibility just to sift out what is of value from what is not.  Some people are not able to do this–or do not want to do it–and swim in mental sewage.  Others are able to do it, and can ascend to the loftiest heights of knowledge and perception.  Every man makes his own choice as to which world he prefers to inhabit.

I mention all this only to point out how pleasing it can be to read the words and anecdotes of the literati from olden times.  Their writing had a refinement and civilized quality that is lacking today.  The pace of life was slower; people had more time to read, to reflect on things, and to focus on interpersonal relations.  People actually spoke to each other, and were judged on the quality and gentility of their speech.  They listened to each other, too, rather than just waiting for their turn to speak.  One misses this sort of thing, and is constantly reminded of it when poring over long-forgotten volumes from centuries past.  But all this just makes the old books that much more precious.  They are our connection to a lost world:  a time machine, as it were.

Let us consider a few anecdotes from two Arabic scholars of old Andalus in Spain.  The subjects treated are separations and meetings.  The first anecdote is from the life of the historian and scholar Ibn Qutiyya (ابن القوطية); his birthdate in Seville is unknown, but he died in Cordoba in 977 A.D.  He is remembered today for an extensive history of Islamic Spain.  The biographer Ibn Khallikan provides us more details about Ibn Qutiyya:

He was one of the ablest philologers and grammarians of the age, and possessed extensive information in the Traditions, jurisprudence, and history; he also knew by heart a fund of curious anecdotes, and, by the quantity of poetical pieces which he transmitted down and of historical facts which he discovered, he outstripped every competitor.  In the history of Spain he displayed the highest acquirements, and was so fully acquainted with the biography of the emirs, jurisconsults, and poets who flourished in that country, that he used to dictate, from memory, all the facts concerning them…

The eminent abilities of Ibn Qutiyya were accompanied by a spirit of profound piety and an assiduous attachment to the practices of devotion; he displayed also considerable talent as a poet, but he afterwards renounced that occupation, although his poetical compositions were remarkable for correctness of style, perspicuity of thought, the beauty of the exordiums and the grace of the transitions.[1]

Such were the impressive abilities of Ibn Qutiyya.  The following anecdote is told of him.  A scholar named Al Tamimi was once out riding his horse, on his way to his country villa near the foot of the Cordova mountains.  He happened to meet with Ibn Qutiyya, who was returning from his own villa that he owned in the area.  Al Tamimi recognized him and knew he was a man of erudition and humor, so he jokingly tested him with this greeting:

From where do you come, incomparable man?  You who are the sun, and whose sphere is the world?

Ibn Qutiyya laughed and responded in this way, without any hesitation:

I come from a hermitage where the devotee can enjoy solitude, and where sinners may commit their sins in secret.

This reply showed a sense of refinement and humor, and it delighted Al Tamimi, who later wrote, “I was so highly delighted with his reply, that I could not forbear kissing his hand and praising him, and invoking God’s blessing on him; he was moreover my old master, and, therefore, deserved these marks of respect.”

The next anecdote concerns the philologer and grammarian Abu Bakr Al-Zubaidi, who was a native of Cordoba.  His biographer Ibn Khallikan tells us he was born in Seville and died in Cordoba in 989 A.D.  Of his reputation we are told:

He surpassed all his Spanish contemporaries by his knowledge of syntax, rhetoric, and curious anecdotes; besides which, he was well versed in biography and history. The works which he left us are a proof of his extensive learning…[among them are] a treatise on the incorrect phraseology of the vulgar; the Wadih (plain treatise), a highly instructive work on grammar; and a treatise on the grammatical forms, which has never been surpassed.

Al Zubaidi was renowned for his wise teachings, sayings, and stories.  Among them I have selected the following sayings, which relate to our theme of meetings and separations.  He also very much appreciated the charms of women.  He carried on a passionate affair with a girl in Seville named Salma, whom he was forced to take separations from on account of his work.  During one of these enforced separations, he wrote her the following lines:

My dear Salma, I take it not to heart.  Separation must be endured with fortitude.  Think not that I bear your absence with patience, unless it be with the patience of a man in the pangs of death. God has not created a torture more excruciating than the moment of goodbyes.  Death and separation appear to me the same, except that the former is accompanied by the wailing of the funeral mourners. Promptly severed as we were, though once closely united, reflect that every meeting leads to a departure, that the boughs divide into branches, that proximity tends to remoteness, and union to separation.

On the same subject of separations from those we are fond of, he would often say the following:

To be poor in one’s native country is like living in a foreign land;  a foreign land with wealth is home;  the earth is all the same;  mankind are brothers and neighbors.

This is a wise statement, and no less true today.  Finally, I cannot resist quoting Al Zubaidi on the subject of knowledge.  He said:

A man must be judged from his intelligence and discourse, not from his equipage and dress.  A man’s clothing is not worth a straw if he possesses a narrow mind.  It is not long sittings in the professor’s chair which can procure learning, wisdom, and intelligence.


[1]  Quoted translations are by M. de Slane, Ibn Khallikan’s Biog. Dict. III 90-93.


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