The Wisdom Of Ibn Zafar al-Siqilli And Abu Bakr al-Khowarizmi

The writer and scholar Ibn Zafar al-Siqilli lived from 1104 to about 1170.  The cognomen al-Siqilli (“the Sicilian”) was given to him because he was born on the island of Sicily.  There are a number of important works credited to his name, the most famous of which is a book of ethical and political philosophy called Consolation for the Master Who Suffers From the Hatred of His Servants (the brilliant Arabic title, written in the rhyming prose typical of Arabic literature, is سلوان المطاع في عدوان الأتباع‎).  In English, this work is often referred to simply as the Sulwan al-Mutaa’.  The book was composed in 1159, during the time of the second Norman king of Sicily, William the Bad.  Sicily (Sakalliya) had been an Arab emirate from A.D. 831 to 1091.

I cannot discuss the contents of the Sulwan in detail, since at the time of writing of this article, I have not read the book.  (My source for this article is Ibn Khallikan’s short life of the writer).  However, the very few scholars who have read and written about the work have commented on it quite favorably.  They describe it as a kind of predecessor of Machiavelli’s The Prince.  Here we have the remarkable fact that, hundreds of years before that subtle Florentine, an Arab Sicilian lays out the basic principles on how a ruler should control his subjects.  The fact that he is nearly totally unknown in the West today also tells us much about the absurd dearth of modern, annotated English translations of many (if not most) Arabic literary classics.  This book is on my reading list for 2018, and I intend to discuss its contents in detail one I have digested them.

A monastery in Sicily, with architecture showing a clear Arabic influence.

The biographer Ibn Khallikan tells us that Ibn Zafar endured a hard life accompanied by constant poverty.  His early life was spent in both Sicily and Mecca.  According to Ibn Khallikan, he was in such dire need that in the city of Hamat, he was forced to marry his daughter to a man of a lower social station than his daughter’s; and when the bridegroom left the city, he sold his bride as a slave somewhere else (although this act was forbidden by law).  Despite these miseries, Ibn Zafar has left behind one quote of such penetrating wisdom that it must be quoted here, and reflected on by readers.  He wrote:

A man’s misfortunes correspond to his merits; and, by his patience under affliction, his share of merit may be known.  He who has but little firmness in facing what he apprehends, will have but little chance of gaining what he hopes for.  [Biog. Dict. III.107; trans. by M. De Slane]

A man’s abilities and personal characteristics determine, in many ways, his misfortunes.  The more of a fool a man is, the greater his bad luck will be.

A side-street in Sicily

We turn next to an equally memorable personality.  Abu Bakr al-Khowarizmi was raised in Syria, in the region of Aleppo, but traveled widely and died in Nishapur in A.D. 993.  He is described as one of the best poets of his era, as well as an accomplished philologist and grammarian.  In time his fame preceded him, and he was highly sought after by political figures of his day.  The following anecdote is told of his meeting with a local ruler, and says much about his reputation for wit and linguistic subtlety:

It is related that having gone to see the Sahib [the word sahib was an honorific title] Ibn Abbad, who was then holding his court at Arrajan [a medieval city in southwestern Iran], he requested one of the chamberlains to announce to him that a literary man desired permission to enter. The chamberlain took in the message, and his master replied:  “Tell him that I have bound myself not to receive any literary man unless he know by heart twenty thousand verses composed by the Arabs of the desert.” [the Arabic spoken by the bedouins was, by common consent, considered the most pure].

The chamberlain returned back with this answer, and Abu Bakr said: “Ask him if he means twenty thousand verses composed by men, or twenty thousand composed by women?” This question was repeated to the Sahib, who immediately exclaimed: “This must be Abu Bakr al-Khowarezmi!  Let him come in.”

However, the meeting of the two men was not as congenial as it might have been.  Apparently they had a falling-out.  It is said that after leaving the Sahib Ibn Abbad, the poet composed the following lines about the ruler:

Praise not Ibn Abbad when his hands shower forth generosity so as to shame the rain-cloud.  Such acts are merely the suggestions of his fancy.  He grants, but not from liberality, and he refuses, but not from avarice.

Ibn Abbad did not forget this insult.  When al-Khowarizmi died, Ibn Abbad made the following comment:

I said to the caravan returning from Khurasan: “Is your Khowarezmite dead?” and they answered: “Yes.”

On this I said: “Inscribe these words upon his tomb:  “May the curse of the Almighty light upon the ungrateful!”

The other following sayings are attributed to al-Khowarizmi:

I see that, when wealthy, you pitch your tent close to us, and that, when you are in want, you visit us seldom.  It is with you as with the moon: when her light is diminishing, she delays her visits, but when it increases, she remains with us long.

O you who longs for draughts of pure wine, but who, occur what may, will never break the seal of the paper in which your money is rolled up:  know that the purse and the goblet cannot be filled at the same time.  Empty then your purse, that you may fill your goblet.  [Trans. by M. de Slane, Biog. Dict. III.110, with minor editing done for clarity]

The points of these two quotes should be obvious.  The first is a ridicule of those fair-weather friends who only care about appearances.  The last one is a caution that one must sometimes spend money to enjoy the good things in life.


For 2018, explore the timeless lessons in Sallust in a way that is comprehensible for the modern reader: