Al-Farra And The Three Obligations Of Respect

Abu Zakariyya Yahya Ibn Ziyad is one of the more famous of the early Arabic grammarians.  Known to history by his moniker Al-Farra, he was born in the city of Kufa around A.D. 761 and received an intensive education there in rhetoric, law, and theology.  His biographer Ibn Khallikan calls him “the most eminent of all the doctors of Kufa and also the most distinguished by his knowledge of grammar, philology and the various branches of literature.”

An early story told of him indicates the notoriety he achieved in linguistic knowledge.  He resolved to enter the service of the caliph Al-Mamun, and approached the palace doors a number of times in an attempt to gain entrance.  One of the caliph’s learned advisors, Abu Bishr Thumana, went to question this young man who desired royal service.  He made the following observations on Al-Furra:

I saw a person in the attire of a literary man.  So I sat down beside him and commenced putting to the test his knowledge of philosophy.  Finding that he was in that branch an ocean of learning, I tried him in grammar and discovered that he had not his parallel.  l then examined him in jurisprudence and perceived that he was a good legist and well-acquainted with the conflicting opinions of those people.  I ascertained also that he was an able astronomer, a learned physician, and well-versed in the history of the Arabs, their battle-days and their poetry.  On this, I said to him:  “Who are you?  You must be Al-Farra.” He replied:  “I am he.”

[M. de Slane, Biog. Dict. IV.63]

In this way did Al-Farra gain admittance to the palace.  He established a reputation as a linguistic scholar who had few equals.  One of his peers said of him that “Were it not for Al-Farra, pure Arabic would no longer exist; it was he who disengaged it from the ordinary language and fixed it by writing.”  Another anecdote that shows his knowledge of speech registers is the following.  One time, in the presence of the caliph Al-Rashid, Al-Farra was discoursing on some subject.  One of the caliph’s attendants, always anxious to try to demean a rival, pointed out that Al-Farra made a few grammatical mistakes in his speech.  Al-Farra responded in this way:

Commander of the faithful!  It is in the nature of the desert Arabs to employ correctly the final inflexions, and in the nature of those who inhabit fixed abodes employ them incorrectly.  When I am on my guard, I do not commit errors, but when I return to my natural habit, I commit them.

Al-Rashid, having a sense of humor, was greatly pleased by this answer.  When Al-Farra came into the service of the caliph Al-Mamun, the latter wanted him to prepare a detailed and extensive reference work on the correct use of the Arabic language.  He had special rooms on the palace grounds set aside, and appointed copyists and secretaries to ensure that Al-Farra had everything he needed.  The work took many months, but was finally completed.  The grammarian named his opus كتاب الحدود, or “Book of Limits” (Kitab al-Hudud).  The word حد (hadd) means boundary or limit, and the titles conveys the purpose of the work as laying out what is correct and what is not.  The caliph ordered the book to be extensively copied and distributed.

The high respect that the caliph had for Al-Farra is indicated by the fact that he wanted his two sons to be tutored by him in the correct use of Arabic.  The following story is the best one associated with his tenure as a royal tutor.  One day, Al-Farra desired to move from one room to another, and the two princes wished to bring their teacher his slippers.  In the East in general, teachers are held in very high regard, especially in this era.  So the two princes argued with each other on who would have the honor of bringing Al-Farra his slippers.  Unable to agree, each prince brought one slipper.  Now it is in the ways of kings to have ears and eyes everywhere in his palace; and soon the caliph heard about this little incident.  He decided to use it as an opportunity to check on the moral development of his sons.

The caliph had Al-Farra brought before him.  He then said to him, “Teacher, who is the most honored of all men?”  To this question Al-Farra gave the reply, “I know of no one more honored than the Commander of the Faithful.”

“No,” replied the caliph.  “It is he who, upon arising, was able to get two successors of the Commander of the Faithful to compete for the honor of carrying his slippers.”

“Commander of the Faithful!” said Al-Farra, “By God!  I would have prevented your sons from doing this, had I not wished to dissuade them from some honorable duty they had conceived in their minds.  I did not wish to discourage them from trying to achieve a certain estimation in the eyes of others.  We know from tradition that lbn Abbas held the horses of Al-Hasan and Al-Hussein.  When he was doing this, someone asked him why he was doing this, since he was their elder.  Ibn Abbas replied, ‘You fool!  No one can appreciate the merit of people of merit except a man of merit.'”  This was the brilliant answer that Al-Farra gave the caliph.

The caliph was deeply moved by this answer, and was unable to speak for a moment.  Then he said this:

Had you prevented them from carrying the slippers, I should have inflicted on you the penalty of censure and reproach, and should have declared you in fault.  That which they have done is no debasement of their dignity.  On the contrary, it exalts their merit, renders manifest their excellent nature and inspires me with a favorable opinion of their character.  No man, thought great in rank, can be dispensed, by his high position, from three obligations: he must respect his sovereign, venerate his father, and honor his teacher. 

This was what the caliph said.  He then rewarded them all.  To Al Farra he gave twenty thousand dinars, and to his sons, he each gave ten thousand dirhams.  There are other anecdotes told of Al-Farra, but this one to me is the most instructive.  His biographer says that he lived to the age of sixty-three, which would date his death to A.D. 824.

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